Thursday, April 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #109: As Naughty As She Wants to Be! by Roberta Gregory

I use the tag "The War Between Men and Women" here now and then, but I'm well aware that the war is mostly fought from one end -- the one that coined the term. (James Thurber, if you don't know.)

For once, I have a dispatch from the beleaguered rebels in that war, the outgunned and oppressed and overwhelmed majority of humanity. I'm probably not a very good reader for this book, but let me see what I can tell you about it.

Naughty Bits was, as far as I can tell, a late underground -- more like the comics of the '60s and '70s than like the burgeoning alternative-comics scene of the '80s and '90s whence it emerged. It was personal and vitriolic and full of multitudes and political in that way that was also entirely personal. It was all by Roberta Gregory, whose work I didn't really pay close attention to before I saw this book.

"This book" is the second Naughty Bits collection, As Naughty As She Wants To Be!, published in 1995 to collect the stories from Naughty Bits that had too much sex in them for the first collection. (Since this was the era where Fantagraphics, Naughty Bits' publisher, was going all-in on sex in comics through the Eros imprint, I'm not 100% sure why, but my educated guess involves the letters B and N and the word Borders.)

Leading off the book, and taking up a little more than half of the space, are stories featuring Gregory's major series character, Bitchy Bitch. BB is teetering on the edge of middle age and bitter about...well, basically everything in her life. She has a job she hates among people she hates, she doesn't have a boyfriend and hates all of the men she meets, she's horny a lot of the time and both being horny and satisfying her urges makes her feel bad, she wants to be a better person but keeps getting in her own way. She'd be a sad character if she weren't so ferociously obnoxious and pugnacious -- she's the female equivalent of that guy always getting drunk and into fights because he has nothing else to do.

Of course, the flip side of that is that BB is also all raging id, all of the feelings that women are told to repress and hold inside in modern society. She feels to me like the entirely female counterpart to some of R. Cumb's similarly id-obsessed characters, blazing a trail for women to be as crude and loud and demanding as men always are allowed to be. It's no surprise that she's been Gregory's most popular character.

Gregory draws the BB stories with a loose, angry line -- almost a scrawl -- to underscore BB's view of the world. The rest of the stories here are drawn in a less cartoony style, since they're about more real people in a more real world -- still as feminist, still as concerned with gender issues, but more nuanced. (Well, "Crazy Bitches" is explicitly her turnabout on Crumb, and so not nuanced at all -- but that's the point.)

This is probably an outlier for Gregory: she's done a lot of comics in a lot of modes over the years, and this was specifically a collection of her "sexy" comics, mostly drawn from the BB-centric Naughty Bits series, at a time and for a publisher that was doing a lot of sex comics. I expect she's this feminist most of the time -- I certainly hope so -- but my guess is that sex and men are much less important in her work, for the same reason.

But As Naughty As She Wants To Be! is a reminder of what underground comix can be, and a good example of how they're not necessarily sexist and misogynistic, even if that comes out far too often in the usual suspects.

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