Retrofit/Big Planet Comics
Disclaimer: A copy of this comic was provided by the publisher for review.
We All Wish for Deadly Force is a collection of Leela Corman’s previously published short comics, one of which I’ve reviewed here on the site. Corman’s comics range from autobio, to diary, to topical; the subjects stick closely to the personal and the personal as political. “The Wound that Never Heals” is about the loss of a child. “It’s Always Been Here” is about a wishing well and the women who have asked for hope from it throughout the centuries. “Luna of Cairo” is about an American bellydancer working in Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring and “Brooklyn Bellydancing Adventure!” is about Corman’s tenure teaching dance to Jewish women of Eastern Bloc descent, in a Brooklyn that “isn’t the one you hear about on the news.” All of the comics in this book straddle the line between personal and social; some are confessional but also commentary, others, particularly the two “Luna” comics are the reverse, political commentary with a personal edge.
This is a slim volume with a soft cover and it’s not overly designed. The comics come one after another with no space between, no contexualizing notes or essays. While I consider this to be a weakness of hardcover webcomic anthologies like Step Aside Pops, in We All Wish for Deadly Force, it’s a strength. While the comics are all previously published they aren’t, until now, easily accessible in one place. They’re also very different pieces of work. Rather than a collection of strips or similar comic essays, the comics in this collection have vastly different styles and effects. It’s their arrangement within the volume that sets your reading pace and experience more than book design elements which can act as throttle on other types of anthologies. The dreamy watercolours of “The Wound That Never Heals” are followed by the greyscale “It’s Always Been Here.” The panel structure and pacing changes too; “The Wound” is a comic that fills the whole page with panel after panel of intense emotion and information. “It’s Always” has a narrower focus, turning the central wishing well of the comic into its dominant panel motif of circles after circles. After that it’s an untitled, pencil crayon cartoon about parenting. Then a richly painted imagistic dream. Then the story of Corman teaching bellydancing in Brooklyn.
You can’t quite settle in to read We All Wish for Deadly Force, because it doesn’t let the reading experience become comfortable; it’s an anthology that’s constantly changing things up, bringing things, memories, ideas, back up. There’s nothing haphazard-seeming about the selection arrangement of the comics, though; the volume is packed with callbacks, motifs and emotional resonance. It’s interesting to reread “Yarzheit,” a comic about grief, trauma and Holocaust, for example, in concert with “This Way to Progress,” a comic about Corman’s grandparents’ relationship to art and design and the promise that modern art held in the face of so scary a world. They’re both about the Jewish experience in America and about traumas fresh and inherited, written into our cultural DNA, but where “Yarzheit” literalizes a spiral of grief and PTSD, “We All Wish for Progress” is more intellectualized. The distance that the philosophy of art and design allows Corman in “We All Wish for Progress,” though, breaks down in its last image: a modern chair with some modern art in one corner, then a black hand reaching up from the spiral for Corman’s bare foot. She carries her young daughter, who’s laughing, and looks up at the chair mournfully. “My own history has a fair amount of darkness too. These designs speak of lightness, transcendence, gaining escape velocity from the heaviness of history. And I still haven’t learned my lesson about shag carpet.”
It’s this arrangement, presented without comment, that encourages the reader to take in the breadth and depth of her work and to make connections between disparate kinds of comics that you otherwise might not have made. The volume as a whole juxtaposes intellectual and emotional approaches to trauma, aesthetic detachment, and emersion, a tactic that’s employed in individual comics as well. Take the opening comic, “The Wound That Never Heals.” It’s about Corman’s experience with PTSD after losing her daughter. It’s an immersive, layered comic, packed with imagery—strands of hair blending into exposed intestines, suggestions of umbilical cords used as rope, water becoming blood becoming clouds becoming shadows becoming a generalized emotional miasma—and uses a dramatic colour palette that constantly shifts with the needs of a given panel. Much of the storytelling weight is carried by these two things, imagery and colour, while the words set out a straightforward narrative of Corman’s experiences, clinical positions on PTSD and treatment and her prognosis.
Even in Corman’s most straightforward and lighthearted comics that double vision is in effect. The Luna comics, which look at one bellydancer’s experiences as a foreign worker in Egypt after President Mohamed Morsi was deposed in June of 2012, tackle street harassment and gender politics in Egypt. Luna doesn’t just represent her own experiences, she also talks to Egyptian dancers, housewives, seamstresses. Both are highly political but “The Bellydancer’s President” more specifically addresses gender in electoral politics. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, elected in June of 2014, ex-Commander In Chief of the Egyptian forces, swept to power in part because so many women came out to vote for him. He represented the return of military rule—but he also promised to put an end to street harassment and to begin making reforms to make it easier to prosecute rapists. None of the women in the Luna comics are wholly optimistic about Sisi, but an end to post-revolutionary chaos and return to basic safety, that’s something they all want. In the first Luna comic she talks a lot about the difficulties of being a foreign, female worker in Egypt but her conclusion is: but this is the life that I’ve built and that I love, “so I stay and I dance.” In “The Bellydancer’s President,” the dissatisfaction is palpable—he’s not perfect but he’s what they’ve got—and the sense of threat is too. Street harassment is endemic but women have to live, even if in a state of fear. The comics share a more linear layout with small, gutlerless panels. It’s not a perfectly ordered layout, with panels in neat rows, but its one that lends itself to conveying lots of information; and one that conveniently reinforces the subject matter, as street harassers seem to be inescapable, creeping into every panel.
The political is personal and the personal is layered—that’s the thread that holds together We All Wish For Deadly Force. The political is inflected with the personal; the personal exists in, historical, political, familial conditions not of our making, but that make us and are made by us in turn. Corman’s work and her identity is always explicitly grounded in this way: here is, for example, my trauma and its connections to that of my ancestors, my neighbours, my world. In “The Irreducibles,” Corman and friends talk about those aspects of the Jewish American experience that “you can find inside yourself that can’t be boiled away, not matter how assimilated you might be.” Among these she includes her love of geflite fish and kvetching, her feelings of empathy of refugees and “that cocktail of darkness and slapstick…the greatest irreducible of all.” That irreducible, the accompanying picture to which is the cover of We All Wish For Deadly Force, is so evident in Corman’s work, trauma and the odd joke about it, history and the present and the need to keep living it, somehow.
“This is it,” she says in the last comic in the collection, “The Book of the Dead.” “This is all I can offer to the living and the dead.”