Suffused throughout with a light touch that can best be described as genuinely tender, Maia Kobabe’s Lion Forge-published Gender Queer: A Memoir comes across as anything other than the seismic shift it is in terms of consciousness-raising — and maybe that’s what makes it one in the first place. Eschewing the polemic, Kobabe opts for the conversational and, as such, eir (Spivak pronouns — look ’em up if you must, I confess that I had to) story is universally accessible, but in no way represents a “dumbing-down” of its complex subject matter.
I’ll be the first to admit that as a straight white male I may just be the last critic on the planet qualified to comment on the story of a person slowly coming to terms with eir identity as a non-binary, asexual person, but by the same token, it’s folks in my shoes most in need of absorbing and understanding this material, and so — yeah, the perspective of “Joe Average” (or “Ryan Average,” I guess) probably does matter here, even if I only say so myself.
Charting a path from childhood to adulthood with entirely unforced naturalism, Kobabe stitches together a chronology of becoming on the one hand, acceptance (most crucially self-acceptance) on the other, the latter most often trailing the former by a significant chunk of time. There’s doubt, there’s confusion, there’s question after question that can’t be adequately formulated for years, much less answered — prepare to run the emotional gamut, but to never feel like you’re anything less than a privileged observer to a remarkable life.
The scripting finds a happy medium that avoids the self-pitying, open plays for sympathy of a Craig Thompson while also going nowhere near the clinical dispassion of a Chester Brown, establishing Kobabe as a genuinely unique voice within the field of autobio/memoir, an achievement that would be remarkable enough for anyone dipping their toes into long-form graphic storytelling for the first time, but Kobabe goes one better by displaying an intuitive understanding of how to involve readers without resorting to any sort of manipulation one way or the other, showing confidence in eir own story and eir ability to tell it that any number of cartoonists take years to arrive at. It’s amazing how involving a person’s story can be when they refuse to either romanticize it or downplay its significance.
Of course, it would all fall on deaf ears — or maybe that should be blind eyes? — if the art weren’t than up to the job of conveying multi-faceted, highly personal information in a manner as subjectively honest as it is emotionally resonant. Kobabe — with color assistance from sister Phoebe — strikes precisely the right balance on this front, as well, alternating between traditional page layouts and imaginative, free-flowing, organically-designed images that accentuate the states of mind, even states of being, conveyed in any particular scene. For a narrative necessarily focused so frequently and so intently on grappling with confusion, there’s not a panel, not a page in this book that even the most inexperienced comics reader can’t visually absorb and understand precisely how to read, no matter how unconventionally realized.
Even still, any work such as this needs to be expressive, as well, of course, and once again Kobabe comes up trumps there, showing a command of facial emoting and body language that is something far more than merely “impressive.” Whether illustrating the excitement of discovering facebook’s greater selection of gender pronouns or grappling with the idea of “coming out” to eir art class (which still hasn’t happened by the end of the book, closing things on something of a melancholic note), subtleties in expression and stature convey at least as much as Kobabe’s choice of words. I believe “holistic” is the term I’m looking for here.
If it seems I’m being too effusive with my praise in this review, I assure you that I’m absolutely not — this is wholly remarkable work done by an artist in full command of eir remarkable skills that I struggle to find any sort of flaw in. Non-binary cartoonists have been doing some of the best memoir work in all of comics in recent years — think L. Nichols’ Flocks if you require any further proof of this assertion — but even by the lofty standards already established in this still-nascent field of storytelling, this is, as the kids say, “next-level” stuff.
In all honesty, I’m as disappointed as anyone that the “new,” Oni-merged iteration of Lion Forge probably won’t have much space for works of this nature — the editor who commissioned this book has already been laid off — but at the same time, it’s hard not to be grateful that, even if only for one shining moment, they were willing to take a risk on a project as wholly remarkable as Gender Queer, which not only tells a vital and necessary story, but also hails the arrival of a major, perhaps even transformational, new cartooning talent.