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Lap-Dancing Artbabes

A Lilith Fair of local female comic-book artists stretch to sketch

By Richard von Busack

THERE'S A VERITABLE Lilith Fair of female underground cartoonists now taking place at local comic shops. I'm grouping these artists together not just because they're of a certain sex and age--female, about 17 to 30--but also because many evince a certain indistinctness and shyness that conflicts with the boldness of the medium.

Comics need narrative tension, art and wit. As in a good movie, where there's more than one thing going on in every scene, there should be more than a single thing happening in every panel. I know the financial rewards are minimal, but some of these cartoonists need to work harder.

Definition by Ariel Schrag ($12.95, Slave Labor Press) is locally produced and written; the title comes from slang meaning "totally" or "ultimately." The story follows the author's year at a Bay Area high school. At worst, Definition is "definition embarrassing," especially when Schrag goes on about her worship of the band No Doubt. (Schrag's drawing of Glamorous Gwen as some kind of "definition angel" can only be equaled in shamefulness by the Jesus-like pictures of Jim Morrison found in my own high-school notebooks.)

Schrag's scenes are barely drawn, but she's bright and honest, even when discussing her sexuality (which is mostly theoretical). She reminds me keenly of the painful obsessiveness of adolescence. Her willingness to record her feelings and to open her life to other observers deserves encouragement.

Don't let a provocative cover fool you. Jessica Abel's fine gouache on the cover for Artbabe, vol. 2, no. 1 ($2.95, Fantagraphics), wraps around the kind of story you forget after reading once--and don't want to pick your way through twice. The narrative pokiness is exemplified by one entire page of a guy trying to find the right clothes for a big date. I wouldn't be so tough, but Abel has been extremely well received. On the inside front cover, she records her international tours and notes that she has "won a couple of grants."

THERE MIGHT well be some grant money in comics. Erika Lopez, your standard bicoastal, bisexual Puerto Rican/Quaker artist, somehow got her hands on a Pew Fellowship. She's released two books almost simultaneously: Lap Dancing for Mommy ($14, Seal Press) and Flaming Iguanas ($18.50, Simon and Schuster). The former is a collection of Lopez's cartoons; the latter is a novel-formatted road diary illustrated with her cartoons and collages.

At the end of Flaming Iguanas, the more highly recommended of the two books, Lopez's alter ego, Tomato, finds a gooey happy ending in the arms of an older woman she calls "Hooter Mujer." By the time of Lap Dancing for Mommy, H.M. is cheating on her, and Lopez takes her revenge by giving the woman's VCR a bath and kicking it down three flights of stairs. I like reading Lopez--and I'm so glad she's not my upstairs neighbor.

My favorite passage in Flaming Iguanas describes the worst place Lopez ever lived. She writes about the abandoned press-on nails--lying like confetti on the sidewalk on a Sunday morning--outside the Philadelphia bars where the drag queens have their Saturday night fistfights. And she also claims to have seen a gray-haired businessman dropping off a gap-toothed male teenage hustler from a car bearing the bumper sticker "My child is an honor student at Cherry Hill High School."

No Love Lost by Ariel Bordeaux ($6.95, Drawn and Quarterly) focuses on Seattle-based heroine Emma. She is clinging to her erstwhile musician/erstwhile boyfriend, Jed, who is trying to get untangled from her using the most passive-aggressive means possible. Emma is guilty, too--guilty of sacrificing time with good friends for the sake of time with a bad lover.

Bordeaux's writing has improved greatly since her minicomics of a few years back (in which she used to complain about her weight a lot, like Cathy). In No Love Lost, Bordeaux demonstrates the qualities a real artist needs: distance, self-criticism, a willingness to see beyond villains and victims.

The New York­based anthology Girl Talk #4 ($3.50, Fantagraphics) highlights artist Sabrina Jones, who did six pages and a fetching cover of a mermaid with a bandaged tail (to keep her high-heeled slipper from blistering).

Jones likes to write about mythological creatures, not as Ye Olde Myths, but to see how they can be used to provide a sense of the strangeness of being human. Jones' strong, fluid brushwork is more powerful than that of a lot of tentative male artists currently writing comic autobiographies. Those who think that women are the weaker sex are deluding themselves. In creating comics, women have a chance to overpower men on a level playing field.

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From the August 7-13, 1997 issue of Metro.

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