Youth In Decline
The cover of Frontier #14 is not misleading. This is, in part, a comic about progress, corrections, revisiting, and reworking past ideas. The layers of pencil, corrective tape, and marker are a motif, the vehicle through which Sugar makes her point. After the front matter–comic credits over a page of thumbnails, an iPhone note about this comic’s existence–we get a short poem about the illusion of deliberation in art. In a finished piece everything looks just so. Here’s the mess behind that facade.
Rebecca Sugar, creator of Steven Universe and former writer and storyboard artist for Adventure Time, is working on the defining cartoons of our time, the kind of stuff that tops best of lists and is loved by fans and critics alike. She asks about this rhetorically, midway through the comic, “Am I making the actual obsession/nostalgia source material now?” Obviously the answer is yes. Sugar doesn’t ask this so that we can all reassure her in our reviews, but because in this comic she’s looking back on how her own childhood and adolescent obsessions shaped her artistic and personal trajectory, no matter how embarrassing some of them may seem. Or perhaps not seem embarrassing–you can’t sustain embarrassment unless there’s some voice, internal or external, standing in judgement–but rather, how embarrassed we are made to feel about our obsessions, our pleasures, and our personal mess.
Sugar explains that, “For years I worked on a comic called ‘Margo In Bed’ (or ‘Take Me Back’). It was about an adult woman revisiting a childhood crush on a surfin’ cartoon dog. It was about obsession–stomach churning embarrassment … a total loss of control … feeling powerless. I was working through something. I was trying to strangle every drawing into submission.” This is written in that bright blue marker overtop sketches and thumbnails from “Margo In Bed.” This allows Sugar to reminisce about the process of Margo and about being a much younger girl obsessed with a surfin’ cartoon dog. The feeling this conjures, a working through, prompts a segue to Sugar’s interest in drawing dance, specifically drawing a dance in progress or a dance left incomplete. “When I feel lost I draw dancers–I try to draw as if I’m dancing and finish before the song ends.”
Margo dances with her cartoon dog, both at the height of her romantic dream (as though meeting a prince) and as the dream unravels. “Margo” was to work like this: the protagonist was to meet with Rad Rover, the cartoon dog, who would whisk her away to a tropical palace, and leave her to meet up with her prince, a faceless obsessive whose existence covers up a void. He is a romantic shell made only for her. Whether or not this prince is one and the same as Rad Rover is unclear–I’m not sure that it matters since thematically they serve the same purpose, the examination of obsession. Anyway, the dream kind of falls apart and Margo’s confusion and agony is physically dramatized, kinetic, a dance left incomplete, a beautiful mess.
Like Kelly Kwan’s issue of Frontier, this is an art book that tells a story. Sugar, though, gives a bit more to work with in terms of framing and guidance. Her ideas are more literally conveyed. She says midway through the book, at the same time as she reflects on her new position as obsession/nostalgia generator, that “there is something about cartoons. They’re a magic trick. An illusion–the second you believe they’re really moving, talking, they’ve already fooled you. They’re in your head. You’ve made them real! To love them is to love your willingness to be fooled.” The comic closes with another iPhone poem, a page of thumbnails from “Margo” and a corrected dance sketch. The poem is at once ridiculous and real. “It’s a perfect butt touch; Our love is a bow tie pasta; I hurt my shoulder reaching for my device; I don’t want to disturb your sleep; but I’ve got to write a poem about you.” As Margo and Rad Rover enter her tropical palace her whole face lights up with wonder. The dancer is surrounded by rudimentary sparkles, just X’s really, but her face is comported with the sublime pleasure of beautiful motion.
“Margo,” she says, will always be unfinished. A lot of the working through that comic represents is worked through here, in this meta comic. Should an adult woman feel stomach churning embarrassment about the initial obsession, the nostalgic return to it, the messiness of the working through? Whether it’s love of cartoons or love of another person, I don’t think so. Sometimes at the end of a relationship we discover that the object of our love was not that object, but a fantasy version of it that we made just for ourselves. There’s an emptiness to that fantasy, to be sure, a self-serving lack of real depth. But there’s something to the experience of it, no matter the objective worth of our obsession-object, to the “willingness to be fooled.” The feeling, for both the facade and the mess behind it, was real.