Operation Margarine sees a young woman meet a young woman. They’re both having troubles. They ride motorcycles together. I made three tweets while I was reading this book, and I can’t find them, so I shall recreate them:
1. Crying at Operation Maragarine.
2. Now I’m laughing.
3. Crying again.
I did not cry because anybody died, or because it’s a story about cancer (it’s not). I cried because Operation Margarine offers big free emotions, by being vague enough and inviting enough, and giving concrete actions, instead of explanations. I’m going to explain my reactions to this book in the form of several comparisons.
Operation Margarine is a pastiche of retro impressions, a hazy daydream post-pop production. You’ll recognise some of the sub-genre traditions even if you can’t name them, and if you’ve never seen any of the classics which precede this book. Never seen an American motorcycles’n’death road movie? Never seen a 1960s babesploitation? Doesn’t matter. You’ll get it. Some ranged comparisons seem the only authentic mode of response to me.
Maybe that line about cancer seems a bit unfair now that I realise I’m going to compare OM to The Fault in Our Stars. Let me explain: sometimes a story is sad only because “people dying” is sad, without any detail or personal nuance. Calendar Girls? A sad film. It is sad because a husband dies of cancer. That’s a sad sentence on its own: I watched my husband get ill and die. It’s sad, but it’s not a story, and it’s not told with craft. It’s just something about interpersonal life that makes us cry. Calendar Girls was fine, but I wouldn’t stand up to clap. The Fault in Our Stars is a story told with craft where one cries because one feels the feeling of being alive, as Hazel Grace Lancaster. You don’t cry there “because it’s a story about cancer,” even though, of course, it is. In Operation Margarine you feel the feeling of being alive, as Margarine, and sometimes too as Bon-Bon (the brunette).
In fact, cancer has nothing directly to do with the comparison I have to draw. In The Fault in Our Stars, narrator Hazel and her love interest Augustus happen upon a lovers’ code: a word said between them that means “I see you, I love you, I’m here engaged with you.” It is, okay. This word—in fact the exchange of two okays, one in return for the other—is very popular amongst the fans of the book; it appears in fan works and on merchandise. I understand this very well.
I’m including scans of a couple of the times that Margarine and Bon-Bon say to each other, OK, or OKAY. Margarine and Bon-Bon use “okay” between themselves with the same simplicity and acceptance as Hazel and Augustus. Such big exchanges! “I will trust you, stranger, while we’re being hunted by a bike gang in the desert,” “I will stay with you in this harsh, lonely place, because you need to be here and I don’t need to be anywhere else right now.” Even the very first time they meet—by chance, on the street—when both are labouring under the crushing disappointment of men who betray you to belittlement: “I will take the time for you.” I will not be afraid of your emotions. You are not a grenade, and I see the worth in living next to you, being influenced by you, as you live with and through your problems. It’s a very touching space that they make for each other, offering validation without proof of ID. Their simple, fast, undemanding friendship fuels the emotional thrust of the book (and that’s why TFiOS reached so many kids, you raggedy, cynical critics, not the gothic titillation of lovers who die young). It’s good to see such human generosity.
A suitable second comparison for a comic I immediately loved is one I immediately hated. I hate Kill Your Boyfriend, by Grant Morrison and Philip Bond, for reveling in lazy immaturity, in the narrative and the main character; I hate Kill Your Boyfriend because it glorifies, even without the quite literal violence of the title, a shitty attitude that could easily have ruined my essentially similar life. Frankly it appalls me to find KYB‘s “anarchy” enjoyed uncritically. A reflexive distaste, which I will attempt to lay aside whilst explaining, gently, how it fails for me where Margarine succeeds. The titular scene from Kill Your Boyfriend:
Kill Your Boyfriend‘s protagonist is passive. She can’t abdicate from what she perceives as the only future ~society~ can offer her on her own: she achieves motion in her life by allowing some self-impressed dickhead to attach himself to her. He provides, without her assistance, your basic “break from routine” by murdering a teenager, who’s done literally nothing to bring gun violence into his life. Bang bang, you’re dead, I win. Like I said. Basic.
The new boyfriend, Killer Boyfriend, is exactly as poor a philosopher as our protagonist, adding his own personal negative by having the self-determination to bully, but not enough to set a non-oppressive course apart from “the norm.” It’s a particularly masculine over-egging of the violently nihilistic pudding you might call the boredom of privilege. Oh my gosh, reject this. Reject this so hard. Throw it into a great big incinerator and mix up the ashes with salt. This comic is just cruel losers thinking they’re #epic because they’ve given in to bullying those they perceive as weak, disbelieving that they themselves can ever choose to be strong. Too afraid to make a better world, they wet their pants all over this one. This comic is conventional.
Operation Margarine roots an essentially identical moment in problem solving and solidarity between women. Without revelling in violence it uses a punch as a fix: Bon-Bon and Margarine both need Richard to shut up. He’s gaslighting them, reducing their existences as women with humanity (Bon-Bon is crying on the street after being romantically mistreated, Margarine has escaped from a mental health unit where she was suffering, in treatment for an eating disorder) to cartoonish hysteria. One woman he’s just met, the other woman he clearly has history with. But to him, they’re both just these crazy bitches, haha. And he projects that deadening template onto them, refusing his own responsibility to act humanely, with that sentence: “A friend from the loony bin?” He’s hefting some heavy social conditioning here. They need him to not.
If there was a third panel between “Loony bin” and “umph,” showing Bon-Bon’s expression changing, or the punch beginning its wind-up, this scene would be so different. It would be vengeful and satisfying. We’d get a mirror neuron buzz from seeing these characters’ emotional chemistry bubbling up in response to sexist bullying. It would be really much more Kill Your Boyfriend. But it’s not! Bam, Bon-Bon makes him stop, because there is no time in this world for that nonsense, and you’re (you, reader, are) not obliged to deal with it.
Margarine’s mind is blown because Bon-Bon shows her she doesn’t have to work with that crap. She was working through it, she was “dealing with it,” she was keeping on keeping on, deathly hard as it was. But you can say no. Make being a runaway a strength move. You can say “that’s enough,” and go and make it so. It becomes possible, through these panels, for Margarine to (at last!) view her own needs as worthy of prime position. Bon-Bon shows her possibilities beyond do what you’re told and do the opposite of that. Do what will take you to yourself. You don’t need to be a ruthless jackass, or to be cruel, but it’s OK to climb over anyone who’s just hanging out, blocking you. The give and take between Margarine and Bon-Bon is a special thing. The give and take between the reader and the cartoonist is pretty special too. Katie Skelly trusts us to trust her, I think. Or challenges us to.
Reviewing this book, The Comics Journal’s Rob Clough says, “In Margarine’s case, it was being in and out of mental institutions (anorexia is hinted at).” Friend! Hinted at? In an interview with Skelly, the same site’s Chris Mautner suggests, “We don’t know, for instance, why Margarine ended up in a hospital.” We don’t know? Really? What else could the comic be telling you? A differently specific eating disorder diagnosis, perhaps, but how jumpy must a reader be to let the cues go by as hints? This comic is speaking to you. Listen. Margarine’s ill about food. It seems a little ridiculous to be so irritated by this suggestion of mystery, especially when Skelly answers the latter:
…leaving those particular questions a little bit more open-ended added to the strangeness of the story, but also possibly opened up some spaces for the readers to place their own experiences.
But then again, she also says,
I don’t like when a writer or artist or director doesn’t trust their audience enough, so my aim was to leave some spaces more open than others.
And it feels almost cruel to me, for a reader to want Margarine to come right out and say it: Hey you, looking at me, I’m unwell in this specific way. It seems punishing to need somebody to deliver you their audit, before you’ll notice what’s up with them. Let’s not be TV Tropes, okay? Let’s not steamroll our stories. Allow yourself to understand them in ways that are magic and dancing and allow for the meanings of glancing. Take a chance! Who cares if someone laughs? If you’re writing about art, but you’re choosing to be afraid of understanding it, I think you should think again.
Skelly says “Margarine is about escape.” A woman institutionalised for her eating disorder runs off with a husband-dater on a stolen bike. What’s escape? It’s going, the act of going. Going, doing, living. Stinky and sweaty, stuck in the same dress for however-long, Margarine takes initiative and our heroines take an underwear dip. Reminds me of something.
That’s probably my favourite picture of the Runaways. They so clearly just don’t have a fuck to give. Kissed by the sun, black bikini and boots, trying to stay upright because balance is a joy and your pal is there to steady you. Girls who see girls choosing explosive routes to expression under oppression, and hitch their horses together to pull the whole deal harder. Whenever people “go for a swim in the lake together,” you (OK, I) start to wonder if this is the kind of story where they’re gonna start touching. Joan Jett and Cherie Currie had sexy times together, maybe just had sex together, and in that same Chris Mautner interview Skelly says this:
I saw someone on Tumblr say they thought there was room for romance between Margarine and Bon-Bon in the story, which I thought was an interesting way to read it.
Nananan Kiriko, whose work I’m going to draw another comparison to in a minute, also has a lot of room in her stories for girls and young women exploring sex with their girl and young woman peers. It’s a reasonable area to be working in, “these protagonists might be intimately interested in each other,” because anyone can have sex with anyone and anyone can feel romantically about anyone too. Love or sex stories usually have friendship stories in them too, if they’re any good, and it’s really not reasonable to base which friendship stories might become love or sex stories on whether or not the people involved are one guy and one girl. Like Lana Del Rey’s Summertime Sadness and Bat For Lashes’ Laura, Operation Margarine contains so much room for romance between Margarine and Bon-Bon. In my opinion, this is where an author places trust in their audience and allows open-endedness to leave truths up to the audience. “Spaces for the readers to place their own experiences,” yes?
I began comparing the open friendship of this title to the open friendship that allowed the couple in The Fault in Our Stars to become so close and love each other so sincerely, but I’m not going to argue that Margarine and Bon-Bon were definitely, or necessarily, in love. They catalysed permissions for each other, they formed a partnership, and Bon-Bon, with her bike and the act of riding, excited and impressed Margarine. These things are definitely true. If Bon-Bon and Margarine were people who would fall in love with each other (are they, reader?), than maybe past this book they’d be life partners or a great fling who’d look back and think “wow. What a great beginning we had.” If Bon-Bon and Margarine weren’t people who would fall in love with each other (tell me, reader), then they were friends in need. And as they say, that’s friends indeed.
Awright, Nananan Kiriko, and I’m almost done.
Nananan Kiriko was one of my favourite new-to-me creators of last year—a veteran of josei manga who does terrific stories about the gloriousness of mundane interpersonal pain. Feel alive by thinking about how we hurt each other, and the tiny ways in which we can grow warm! She can draw a page like nobody’s business and in my thirst for information this new heroine I came across a gem in her generally unresponsive Wikipedia entry:
She draws each panel so that it can be isolated, like a picture on a poster or T-shirt, rather than drawing/thinking of her manga as a series of boxes. When she draws each panel, she says she sometimes will take even four hours on just one, repeating the same picture dozens of times.
I think I was reading Nananan’s work and Operation Margarine at around the same time, just by serendipity, but check it out, a Skelly panel turned shirt. I’d wear it. Other people have admired Skelly’s unshaded depth and manipulation of solid space, which is similarly strong with Nananan. I don’t have any great observation to deliver on this comparison, but lemme link you to Skelly talking about Nananan. Last thoughts? Buy this comic. To paraphrase Cherie Currie, cos why not—hey, if Bon-Bon and Margarine could live through this, you can too. Or in Lana’s words,
Every night I used to pray that I’d find my people, and finally I did on the open road. We had nothing to lose, nothing to gain, nothing we desired anymore, except to make our lives into a work of art.
Just read. Just ride.