Cathy G. Johnson’s Dear Amanda plays catch with you for a while. Then it knocks the ball out of your hands. You thought you were reading a simple diary comic? You were reading a rather complex meditation on perspective, in fact. It knocked the ball out of my hands, I should say. Reading experiences may differ.
Dear Amanda begins as a letter being written. Then it becomes a comic about Belén who’s writing a letter. Belén begins a relationship and narrates slips and shreds of her experience of her new girlfriend to Amanda; Amanda is, Belén says, a made up nobody who functions as her prospective reader. Even within the narrative conceit, “Dear Amanda,” is a narrative conceit. Belén dreams of becoming a writer. And Dear Amanda is about Ginette, who has been the object of Belén’s narration, the subject of Amanda’s (Amanda is you, me, the actual reader) reading. Ginette, upon reading some of Belén’s Dear Amandas, rejects Belén as a framing device for her life. And I realise—why was I listening to Belén anyway? Belén surrenders all of her narration to me, as questions, as desires to spend time with me (Amanda) in person—Belén is not happening. “I want to move to Amsterdam and become a writer,” she says. Belén! Just be one. You are one. Actualise to your reality.
When Belén and Ginette first meet, they know they are at Girls’ Club (a woman-run child-minding service, apparently?), but we and Amanda don’t. Belén asks Ginette, “What are your pronouns?” Girls’ Club has all-female employees, we learn later. Ginette tells Belén it’s better to ask than to get it wrong. If Ginette preferred “they” or “xie” or another nonbinary form of address, Belén’s asking wouldn’t seem as rude and false as it does upon second read. But Ginette is a girl working at Girls’ Club. This feels like a sharp lesson for me, a cis woman, like Belén is inferred to be. Belén’s asking and Ginette’s response told me that Ginette was trans; later Ginette mentions this herself, so it’s not like Belén’s cue to me was actually necessary. Johnson puts it in there to tell me something—something about Belén, I think. Something about self-congratulation?
As their relationship gradually evolves—we see them visiting each other’s homes, hanging out lazily, going swimming, kissing, having sex, finally having an argument—Ginette is pushed into uncomfortability (by Belén) in every scene except perhaps two. One in which she and Belén begin to make love; one earlier one in which Belén happily negs her. Belén does not realise that she’s consistently the reason for the flat line of Ginette’s mouth, the set of her shoulders, the brave don’t-mind-me raise of her eyebrows. But…I think she is. I don’t think she’s being mindful, and I think that she thinks that she is. “What are your pronouns,” asked of Ginette in public, never evolves into Belén asking herself about Ginette: “Why might she be taking so long to respond positively to my suggestion of night swimming?” Or “What would Ginette think if she knew I was constantly writing about her, to ‘Amanda’?”
The last thing Ginette says to Belén in Dear Amanda is: Fuck you, Belén. Then she parks her car out on a hilltop, smokes up, breathes out. And we’re left with a two-page spread of the stars she’s staring past.
Cathy G Johnson uses the “Dear Amanda” format to allow Belén to betray Ginette, while the literal diegesis remains true to her. Reading this small comic, forty-seven pages with never more than four panels each (often less), I feel like I’ve been preemptively told off by demographic association. I am a cis woman who cares about using people’s correct pronouns: Am I Belén about it, or must I choose, every time, not to be? I must choose not to be. Dear Amanda functions for me as a warning against valuing my intentions too highly—tells me to choose, before it happens, whether I value my own progressivity or somebody else’s right to a non-interrogated existence. “Watch yourself always, Belén (Claire).” I’m grateful for this practical reminder, for the help that may allow me to be better to people than I otherwise might have been. And I’m grateful to have read this piece of high craft: Dear Amanda is an exceptionally deft use of structure and narrative layering.