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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Sophia Foster-Dimino is an excellent cartoonist. So was Pablo Picasso. The difference is that no one ever calls Picasso a “cartoonist” because it sounds like an insult or a damningly faint, left-handed compliment. But in Foster-Dimino’s case I mean it as loud ambidextrous praise. She, like Picasso, understands and exploits the complexities of simplified distortion. Her ten-story collection Sex Fantasy is drawn in a consistent and deceptively simple style of clean black lines, occasional black shapes, and no grays or cross-hatched shading. Though the images suggest a world of equally simple experiences expressible through faces capable of only the most basic expressions, her subject matter and ultimately her technique are far more complicated.

Her first chapter includes Sex Fantasies 1-3, often surreal litanies of various first-person narrators carrying out or expressing variously mundane or impossible acts and feelings. The next chapter switches to narrative form, but with an accompanying increase in ambiguity. Is the figure whispering hurtful remarks into the main character’s ear only her self-destructive inner voice? Are the two women meeting for lunch actually aliens passing for humans? And if so, why does the picture on the wall keep changing expressions? Later fantasies vacillate between naturalism and the surreal. A horrible husband turns out to be only a horrible communicator. An inexplicably doll-sized woman unites with her inexplicably doll-sized boyfriend. The final, lone, and longest story is also the most realistic, with its two characters debating whether to have an affair despite his being married to her close friend, but the grocery store scene of a sex game devolving into infantilizing torment is perhaps the most disturbing. All are rendered in Foster-Dimino’s minimalistic cartoon style.

But what is a cartoon?

Pioneering comics scholar Scott McCloud describes cartooning as “amplification through simplification.” He writes: “When we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details,” creating a visual style that has a “stripped-down intensity.” McCloud illustrates his point with a series of faces beginning with a photograph and ending with an oval containing two dots and a line, which he calls a “cartoon” because it is the most “simplified.” But this is only half true. While the cartoon face is the simplest in terms of detail—it has the fewest number of lines—its lines also differ from the lines in the other faces in terms of shape: the cartoon lines are more exaggerated. They don’t match the shapes of the photograph, and so their intensity isn’t just “stripped-down.” It’s also warped.

A cartoon typically does both: simplify and exaggerate. That combination creates a story world very different from our world, a fantasy universe that allows for a range of impossibilities, from South Park anatomy to Road Runner physics. That’s why comics scholar Joseph Witek coined the term “cartoon ethos”:

“by stripping away the inessential elements of a human face and exaggerating its defining features, caricature purports to reveal an essential truth about its subject that lies hidden beneath the world of appearances. When structuring caricatures in sequence, the cartoon mode treats the comic’s page not only as a loose representation of physical existence, but also as a textual field for the immediate enactment of overtly symbolic meaning.”

But sometimes we, like McCloud, think of simplified but otherwise roughly realistic images as “cartoons” too. What sort of hidden truths and symbolic meanings do they reveal? Foster-Dimino takes brilliant advantage of that in-between ambiguity.

Her “Sex Fantasy 5” depicts a couple hiking together as they reveal stories about their pasts. Neither character initially has a name, and both are composed of a minimum of lines that simplify features to circular eyes and mouths and leave skin and fabric untextured by shade and depth. The first figure Foster-Dimino draws with short black hair and thick black eyebrows, wearing shorts and a sweatshirt. The second she draws with light hair tied in a ponytail and thin eyebrows, wearing a tank top, leggings, and a fanny pack. I registered the first as male and the second as female—probably because, as McCloud says, those few specific details are often-used markers of gender in the stripped-down reality of contemporary cartooning.

So is height. But even though the longer-haired blonde appears a few inches taller than the shorter-haired brunette, “she” was still female in my mind. Though the gender markers fluctuate in flashbacks, my initial assumptions filled in missing details—both visually and narratively—so both figures maintained their gender identities without corroborating visual evidence and even despite some apparent contradictions. When “he” describes his childhood, “he” sometimes has the same short black hair, but other times it’s longer and ponytailed. “She” says: “when I was young I looked very different from how I am now. It took me a long time to settle on this look.” The array of accompanying images demonstrates that range, each version appearing variously female or male—but despite that intentional visual ambiguity, I understood each to represent a biologically female body.

Image result for Remove term: Sophia Foster-Dimino Sophia Foster-Dimino

The punchline of course is that “she” is male and “he” is female, as Foster-Dimino reveals in the collection’s single, albeit mild sex scene in which “he” removes his shirt and then bra to expose breasts and “she” removes her tank top to reveal none. Did Foster-Dimino mislead us? Certainly. But look back at the previous pages and see that we also fooled ourselves, since the implied bagginess of “his” sweatshirt would easily obscure breasts, and “her” more tightly fitting tank top clearly covers no breasts at all.

So how can such “essential elements” of gender go unnoticed? Foster-Domino was cartooning in the simplifying but not exaggerating sense. Rather than assuming her characters existed in an impossible world of cartoon proportions typical of, say, Charlie Brown or Beetle Bailey, we understand them to be inhabitants of either our world or a realistic world very much like it. So instead of reading the lack of detail as a photo-like representation of that world, we understand it to be merely artistic style. The actual characters—who do not exist on the page but in our heads—are as detailed as anyone in our world. And yet those details exist only in our detail-providing imaginations, a fact Foster-Dimino knows and happily exploits. By stripping her characters down to stereotypical elements, she knows we will fill-in the corresponding but ultimate wrong set of gender details.

But that’s not her final punchline. Foster-Dimino takes “Sex Fantasy 5” one cartooning step further with a second reveal that returns the story world to Witek’s cartoon ethos, where stories:

“often assume a fundamentally unstable and infinitely mutable physical reality, where characters and even objects can move and be transformed according to an associative or emotive logic rather than the laws of physics. Bodies can change suddenly and temporarily in shape and proportion to depict emotional states or narrative circumstances, as when the body of an outraged character swells to many times its normal size, or appears to levitate several feet off the ground in a cloud of dust.”

Rather than levitating, the character formerly understood to be female swells into an enormous comet-shaped creature composed entirely of wings and suggestive of no sexual identity. The character formerly understood to be male watches nonchalantly before “she” grabs onto to “his” back as they fly away, saying: “I didn’t know you could do that.”

We didn’t know either—a fact far more biologically significant than “his” or “her” breasts. Does this winged being also have a penis or a vagina? At differing points during my first reading, I would have answered yes separately to both. Now, I’m not so sure. Which is Foster-Dimino’s point—one expressible only through the point of her deceptively simplifying cartooning pen.

[Check out more of Foster-Dimino’s work at her website. A version of this post and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters. Oh, and here are some Picasso “cartoons”:

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