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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

I began publishing comics reviews at PopMatters.com in spring 2017, roughly two per month for the last two years. I wait a few weeks and then post a variation of each here. This began right after my pre-tenure leave, when I spent a semester off writing comics scholarship. The leave came with some research money designed to cover travel expenses to libraries and whatnot, but I spent my funds bringing books to me. I doubled my library of graphic novels.

This was essential for two reasons: I had too many superhero comics, and I had too many comics by men. For the most part, those two categories are one category. So if I sit writing about, say, closure inferences or the narrative implications of the naturalistic mode, and wheel myself over to my bookcase and pluck at random, my scholarly examples were going to favor men, probably overwhelmingly so. And while Maus and Watchmen are wonderful, does comics scholarship really need more analysis of them?

So I loaded my shelves with women. I wanted to literally stack the odds so that when I start grabbing books and flipping pages searching for examples of, say, parallel word-picture relationships or unreliable image-narration, chances are better that the author is going to be female. I took the same approach to writing reviews. When I get a new list of available books, I skim for women’s names first. When I’ve worked through those, I turn to the men.

The results so far: 27 reviews of works by women, 19 by men.

A more radical approach would be women only, but this seems like a reasonable middle ground. I don’t want to miss great comics, regardless of who is creating them, but I want to chip away at my male-dominated field too. I’m also discovering amazing authors I might have otherwise overlooked because they were unfamiliar to me. Aminder Dhaliwal is high on that list. She also imagines a world far more extreme than my little gender-skewed library:

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It turns out that a world without men won’t be completely different from a world with them. There will still be: ingrown nipple hair, flatulence, vomiting, crushes, nudity, unrequited love, deer sex, doctors, stool samples, traveling art shows, periods, pregnancy, gossip, artificial legs, mixed messages, break-ups, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Oprah worship, monogamy, anxiety issues, and bananas. There will also be a few new things, like mayoral elections with only one, self-deprecating candidate, and, unless you live in the capital, your village flag will likely feature a Beyoncé body part.

But a world with no men will involve some loss too. There will be no more: shirts that button on the wrong side, dildo factories, Starbucks, race wars, Twinkies, “motorized chariots,” malls, and tooth whiteners. Also, still no Blockbusters. Oh, and feminism—since feminism as defined as gender equality between men and women will go extinct with the last man. Even better, when you look at a sky filled with dozens of explicitly phallic-shaped clouds, you’ll only see the one that looks like a fish. And though art by male artists won’t disappear, when you look at a painting that used to foster “unrealistic standards” for feminine beauty, you’ll only notice the unrealistic heaps of fruit.

If this post-apocalyptic future doesn’t sound so bad, you need to get a copy of Dhaliwal’s Woman World. The graphic novel is an expanded compilation of the Instigram series she began after the 2017 Women’s March. Dhaliwal told thewebcomicwhisperer.com last year:

“The march was so refreshing, exciting and supportive. Everyone (not just women) had a great time, I loved it. Soon after a couple different friends, and friends of friends posted their signs, t-shirts and banners from the march on social media, and we all watched an instant backlash from certain types of people online. The idea for Woman World came fairly soon after, I never wanted it to be preachy or forcing any sort of message. Just a cute, tongue-in-cheek feminist comic.”

Dhaliwal’s self-description is as on target as the book itself. I rarely laugh out loud at comics, but Dhaliwal approaches her fantastical premise at unexpected angles, revealing humor in the collapse of some old assumptions—and the continuation of others. The page of cloud penises is funny, but also surprisingly though-provoking: If you don’t see penises all the time, then you don’t see penises all the time. That’s a smart insight for any reader, even one who, like me, has a penis. As Dhaliwal says, everyone (not just women) should have a great time.

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Of course Woman World is a fantasy. While the notion of a genetic disorder that causes all female births is less far-fetched than many post-apocalyptic premises, a village peopled entirely by reliably caring friends and family is. The worst trait in the town of Beyonce’s Thighs is over self-involvement when struggling through a difficult romance. So in the female future there is no crime, just the occasional foible. Dhaliwal isn’t pretending this is a realistic portrayal of humanity—or even one half of humanity. Woman World isn’t a treatise advocating patriarchy. It’s just a humane comedy.

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I also admire the comic as a comic. Dhaliwal’s cartooning is effectively sparse, capturing ten women with just a few, instantly defining pen strokes. Ulaana, the lone grandmother and chronicler of the old world, requires six extra: one under each eye, two on each side of her mouth. Yes, Ina’s and Gaia’s round heads are identical except for the curves of their hair—but that provides one of the book’s meta jokes. Dhaliwal also occasionally breaks her own norms—when, for instance, she renders Lara striking her “the face” pose in full, three-dimension-evoking color.

The majority of the book is black on white comic strips, divided into discrete panels, usually variations of a 3×2 grid across two pages each—presumably taken directly from the Instigram run. But in terms of visual storytelling, I most admire the color, open-panel material that I assume Dhaliwal added for the print edition. The novel opens with twenty-three pages of world-building exposition—an approach I find disastrous in most science fiction, whether on paper or on screen. But Dhaliwal provides much more than a how-did-we-get-here intro for her comics strips. The opening sequence is the most visually dynamic of the book, incorporating full-page bleeds, embedded images, and word designs that playfully intersect with the story world. I do wonder though if the novel’s first character really had to be the male scientist who discovers the birth trend.

Dhaliwal includes eight similar pages at the end of the novel, providing a much-appreciated farewell for her charming cast of characters. Six pages of old world statuary in increasing, full-color collapse punctuate the chapters too. While the images are excellent, I do wish Dhaliwal had expanded the approach since they feel buried in the two-hundred-some pages of black and white strips. While there’s plenty of room for a sequel (the ending reference to a battle with giant arachnids is a great, tongue-in-cheek teaser), I suspect this will be our only visit to this not-so-dystopic future. I recommend you not miss it.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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