Toon Musings: Special Snowflakes

Awesome Power

Awesome Power

I’ve never been a huge fan of autobiographical comics; or indeed of comics that hew close to reality when telling a story. Maybe it speaks to a marked childishness in my taste for entertainment, or a boredom with reality in general. Whichever, I’ve never really sought out the kind of angsty, self-referential “slice-o’-life’ stories that are so trendy these days, and of which most proponents of Comics as Art are so fond.

Nonetheless, I had run across a collection of the independent comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, and had enjoyed it. The author, Alison Bechdel, portrays characters well, has a nice ear for natural dialog and draws killer facial expressions. It’s also a strip that does serious character and story continuity, which I tend to like, but makes following the strip a bit of an investment, which I didn’t really have the bandwidth for at the time. I more recently rediscovered her in a discussion about characterization which introduced me to (as she prefers to call it) the Bechdel-Wallace Test, which purports to indicate whether a work of fiction is “woman-friendly”. The test as it was originally conceived is basically this: A work of fiction —

  1. Must have at least two women in it who—
  2. Must talk to each other, and—
  3. Their conversation must be about something other than a man.

This really struck me as a good rule of thumb when trying to realistically portray women in, say, a comic strip or something; not that I’ve done it yet, but I plan to. Honest.

Ms Bechdel has won some acclaim, not only for this rule, but also for a couple of long-form autobiographical works that explore the development of her sexuality, the relationship she had with her parents, and larger psychological, cultural, existential and ontological questions. She got a Genius Grant in 2014, so there’s that. She’s a real Brainy Janey, I mean to say.

Well, it seems Ms Bechdel was in the news recently. Some incoming freshmen at Duke University have objected to being assigned to read her first autobiographical work, Fun Home, which describes her relationship with her father and her realization that she is gay. There is more, but… Spoilers. At any rate, these students decided, presumably sight unseen, that her finely drawn psychological/philosophical portrait of her early family life (and the five or so frames of nudity and sexual activity) rendered this 232-page graphic novel “pornography”. Thus, it offended their religious sensibilities and they would not read it.

One marvels at the fragile nature of these students’ faith, to be so easily shaken. I imagine their lives must be a veritable tightrope walk, what with having to shun the news, with all that war; and Shakespeare, with all that cross-dressing and regicide, and about 97% of popular culture, for goodness’ sake. How in the world do they read the Bible, which is chock-a-block with all sorts of bad behavior: murder and incest and slavery and torture and mutilation and visiting punishment unto the third and fourth generations. Oh, and genocide, wherein God himself obliterates two whole cities, and oh yes, the entire human race that one time. But heaven forfend they should witness a cartoon drawing of couple of lesbians “gettin’ busy”! I dearly hope they don’t read this column. Why, the gentle breeze of my mild mockery might itself topple the rickety tower of their weltanschaung like so many Jenga blocks, and I’d be inconsolable for minutes.

Happily, the assignment was optional. No gossamer threads of faith need be shredded by this “comic” book. And yet, one wonders what these students were doing attending a world class university if they were so afraid of a little horizon-widening; surely there are lots of schools out there that wouldn’t challenge the delicate doilies of their beliefs. Isn’t that what a good university education is for, broadening a student’s experience? But then I remembered the recent ham-handed attempt by the Wisconsin governor to rewrite the University of Wisconsin’s mission. As Alia Wong of the Atlantic put it:

“Walker proposed to rewrite the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement. He apparently wanted to strip out its frills (stuff like ‘extended training,’ ‘public service,’ improving ‘the human condition,’ and ‘the search for truth’) and inject it with a more practical goal: meeting ‘the state’s workforce needs.’”

So, no horizon-broadening necessary! Never mind about that well-rounded education! Just poop out those specialized corporate cogs and don’t concern yourselves with all that collectivist claptrap like “culture” and “art” and “knowing stuff” outside a narrow comfort zone.

But then I realized something. A terrifying something. These students all cited the “sexual images” and the “graphic depictions of sexuality”. One even went so far as to admit:

“The nature of Fun Home means that content that I might have consented to read in print now violates my conscience due to its pornographic nature.”

He means the cartoon nature of Fun Home. I— I never realized… and yet somehow I knew all along; the Terrible Kirby Krackle we cartoonists wield (Google it, lesser beings*)! Tremble before the awesome power of my Mighty Scribblings! Give me the respect I am due, or… I shall draw some boobies at you! Or perhaps even a dong!

*Oh, very well.

TooCoolHeadshotPhil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring untrammeled wildernesses, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures. 

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