Saturday, May 10, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #129: Queen of the Black Black by Megan Kelso

Short stories are proverbially an endangered species, fallen from the days of Fitzgerald and Hemingway into the small magazines and payment-by-copies ghettos of today, kept alive purely by love, since there's no money anymore. There's a buried morality tale there, of course: yet another story of an Age of Gold, when things were as they should be, before the world fell into its current decrepit state. Like most morality tales, it's partially true but hugely misleading: people have always wanted quick, disposable entertainment, and short stories filled that niche well for a while, but were edged out by things that were quicker, more disposable, and more purely entertaining.

Luckily, there's no such romance about short-form comics -- they've never been hugely popular, never that important, never the center of a cult of significance and respect. So they can function purely as stories, as a proving ground for new ideas or new creators, as an art form without any particular expectations or demands. A short comic is just a comic that happens to be short, not an argument about the good old days or a cry from the battlements.

Megan Kelso has been making short comics for two decades now, starting out with her self-published Girlhero in 1993. Those Girlhero stories, from 1993 to 1997, were collected, along with a few other shorts from anthologies, in Queen of the Black Black more than a dozen years ago. (Her second collection, The Squirrel Mother, covered about the next half-decade.) But in the hoopla over Kelso's excellent first full-length graphic novel, Artichoke Tales (which I reviewed for Realms of Fantasy, so I can't link to that here), her publisher, Fantagraphics, brought Queen of the Black Black back into print, and it's stuck around this time.

So these stories are all a decade and a half old, and the work of a cartoonist who's been getting better and smarter and more nuanced for that time: Queen of the Black Black is journeyman work, let's say, done by a creator already pretty good at her craft but still figuring out what works, what doesn't, and how to best tell the stories she wants to tell.

None of these stories are directly autobiographical -- Kelso makes that clear in her end-notes from 1999 -- but many of them take imagery or scenes from her life at the time: a laundromat, a reservoir, a janitorial job. The stories them selves break into two categories -- half are realistic, stories of generally young women in a tough world, dealing with homelessness or herpes or an affair or just another temp job. The other stories are more inventive, looking forward to the allegory of Artichoke Tales -- there's even the first Kelso story about her artichoke-headed people here -- or transmuting other kinds of art, visual or musical, into comics pages. The title story is probably the most accomplished and successful -- both in its gouache art and in the way it mixes a down-to-earth story of artistic striving with a visual world that looks like a fantasy castle and a symbolic depiction of the lead's musical work.

Again, these are early stories, so most of them have some flaws -- well, clearer flaws, since no stories are perfect. Kelso's early drawings were too loose, some of the time, and her plots even more so, trying together images and ideas in ways that sometimes had them just drifting through the same panels and not tied closely together. But Kelso was a thoughtful, interesting creator as far back as the beginning of Girlhero, focused on real women's lives and thoughts, and that focus makes up for a lot of not-quite-perfect execution.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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