PRINT October 1991


Bad-Girl Cartoonists

IN A STORY FROM Krystine Kryttre’s comic book Death Warmed Over, 1990, a man agrees to let his lover kill him and stew up his body in her new Crockpot. “I want you to become part of me,” she tells him. When cops come to the door, she’s caught with a mouthful of flesh and a couple thighbones poking out of the pot. “Uh oh,” she thinks, “I’ll bet this looks real bad.”

An attraction to “bad” behavior inspires most of Kryttre’s work, and links her as well to a growing number of women cartoonists out to explode the limits of acceptable femininity. With titles like Slutburger Stories and Dirty Plotte (“plotte” is French-Canadian slang for cunt or slut), these comics obviously aim to fuck not only with the usual, tired double standards but with feminist visions of healthy womanhood as well. Their female characters suffer hangovers, sleep around, pick their noses, masturbate, fantasize about their pets’ sexuality, do drugs, and get screwed over by men much worse than any in Thelma & Louise. The trick to these woman-writ stories is that the price of risk is not necessarily death or shame but self-knowledge: being bad is life-giving.

Of course, such female renegades did not spring fully formed into the cartoon world. Two irreverent all-woman forums—Wimmen’s Comix and Tits & Clits—began publishing in the early-to-mid ’70s with art from the likes of Trina Robbins, Lee Marrs, Joyce Farmer, Dot Butcher, and Lyn Checli. In Tits & Clits #2, from 1977, a woman and a man pick each other up in a bar and go home together—where they discover that both were cross-dressing. The cover of that issue is a Farmer drawing of a woman wrapped in the American flag; the caption: “I leaked, but its O.K. Its on the red stripe!”

Kryttre, with sister Californian Mary Fleener and Montreal-based Julie Doucet, have all contributed to later issues of either Wimmen’s or Tits & Clits, but their work signifies a shift in such comics to a deeper investigation of self. All three play with aggression and victimization not to express rage but better to understand where those urges take them and how to incorporate such feelings amongst all the prescriptions attached to femininity.

As a for instance, “Crazy Bitches,” the first story in long-time Wimmen’s Comix contributor Roberta Gregory’s recent book Naughty Bits, starts with a man reading a female-exploitive comic and ends with a bunch of women enjoying tea; in between, the women have tied up, sodomized, raped, shat upon, and castrated the poor guy as a play on the male defense that sexist work is only “parodying. . .the hostility that some men feel towards women.” A worthy target, yes, a direct hit, and not much else. Both Kryttre and Doucet have written stories about carving up men, but their men are willing victims; the focus is not on teaching “them” a lesson but on figuring out how that violence feels, what need it fills, what it may mean for a woman to act out that scenario.

In their willingness to exhume their own lives, Kryttre, Fleener, and Doucet recall Aline Kominsky-Crumb and the late Dori Seda, cartoonists who, in Weirdo (edited by Kominsky-Crumb), worked out issues of self-worth, sexuality, and independence through autobiographical stories. What distances Kryttre, Fleener, and Doucet from Seda and Kominsky-Crumb is their easy confidence: their characters don’t waste time battering themselves about weight and being alone and getting stuff done. Most important, they’ve exorcised all guilt (if they ever had any) over what others may think of their “bad” behavior. If any conflict remains, it’s with their own internal editors.

Fleener’s Slutburger Stories, 1990, in particular presents the artist as a character in real (her italics) autobiographical stories, all pictured through geometric shapes, cubistic figures, and line drawings in opposing blocks of black and white. The cartoon Fleener plays straight woman to a gaggle of eccentrics ranging from a dependent junkie to a mute pickpocket. In each tale she moves from wisecracking ironic distance to irritated/appalled involvement. Her anger rises from both the inconvenience of her involvement with these fuckups and her reluctant identification with them. In “Trauma Mama!,” for example, Fleener’s home is invaded by a cocaine-and-heroin addict who serves up lines in exchange for an audience to her life crises. Fleener finally kicks her out, upset at her own compliancy in the equation. A year later she’s chagrined to find the woman back in her driveway; in Fleener’s comics, torturous relationships have a way of coming round again. With deadpan humor, Fleener entertains characters who stink up her life, enrage her brain, and force her to recognize their wack impulses as potentials in herself.

The cover of Slutburger depicts a multiple-armed and -legged woman in a bra and garter belt sifting in a martini glass. One pair of arms grabs at the head, which wears at least three faces with three different responses to the figure’s predicament. In Fleener’s jangled, oppositional drawings her rational mind struggles to reconcile contradicting desires and thoughts.

Doucet’s Dirty Plotte, a series begun in 1990, exhibits no such distance from her psyche. It’s tempting to call her completely unself-conscious but that label does a disservice to her skill. Better to say she seems to have a bemused acceptance of everything that comes off her pen. Reading Dirty Plotte is like dreaming, the more so through Doucet’s occasionally ingenuous English.

Doucet wanders between winsome and warped with the same urchin curiosity, mingling fantasy and routine from page to page, drawing to drawing. In Dirty Plotte #2 she writes an entire strip on the horror of approaching Christmas. Then, on the same page, the disturbing story “A Blow Job” ends when a prostitute undressing before a trick reveals herself as first man, then dog, and finally snake. As the snake curls up the trick’s leg and sucks him off, we’re left with questions about female sexual identity—how men see it, how women feel it, how it can be transformed by male expectations.

In a telling montage called “Self Portrait in a Possible Situation,” Doucet draws herself naked, legs spread, and slicing herself up with razors. The point is not to arouse but to show how false and ultimately violent the mass-marketing of desire can be. Using the body of her cartoon self as her canvas, Doucet works out what it feels like to live in a female body, and, further, how her raging brain interacts with flesh and bone. Again and again she reveals the physical manifestations of her psyche’s impulses, baring, in her vulnerability to us, her vulnerability to herself.

Doucet’s busy, lively panels, with their big-headed, big-eyed figures, construct a dream reality where her spirit can revel in itself without consequence. She can carve herself up, or get stuck in the eye with a syringe full of dope, but the stories remain dreams, “self-portraits in possible situations,” entertaining lessons from the dark side of the brain.

In Kryttre’s Death Warmed Over, those lessons have more dangerous consequences. Death haunts Kryttre’s book, from the opening story about Seda, the cartoonist and friend of Kryttre’s who died of flu complications, to the final cannibalistic tale of trying out the new Crockpot. The drawings are predominantly black, the characters bony and wide-eyed, with sharp snapping teeth.

Kryttre’s stories are about risk and loss, about walking the tightrope between experiment and obsession. A lonely figure buys companionship with cocaine but falls prey to the means and ends up a dead junkie. Another figure, hurting from the loss of three friends, spreads the news of their deaths and causes another suicide with his tale. Kryttre also describes her relationship with Seda, and how their caring for each other, born of shared risks and “bad” behavior, made her friend’s death so terrible a loss.

One easily overlooked story pictures a couple driving a steep, curving stretch of road; a passionate kiss sends them busting through the guardrail to a shattering death. To love in any age means peril; to love today, to live ardently and well across a range of experiences, is to chance death and know certain sorrow. “Bimbos from Hell,” the comic about Seda, shows Dori’s ghost apologizing to a forlorn Krystine. “We’re bad girls, Dori!” laughs Krystine, “Fuck being sorry!” Here is the womanist assumption of care reworked, scuffed up, made real: coring not because you should, not from some female biological imperative, but out of a sure knowledge that life without it is a sham.

In “Good Dog” Kryttre illustrates the moon card from the tarot deck and describes the legendary dogs and wolves that consumed the dead and carried the soul to the afterlife. An ordinary mutt dreams he is such a conductor and wakes up shaking his head: “Maybe it was something I ate.” A small joke, yes, but also a hint of what Kryttre aims to do with her comics. The moon card urges its recipients to use their dreams and fantasies to uncover subconscious fears. Kryttre plays (and it is play—for all her eerie graphics, she is quite mischievous) with nightmare images of sex and death, eager, like Fleener and Doucet, to take what freaks and fascinates her, know it, and communicate it.

Kryttre’s cover art depicts a skeleton with a big pink heart getting hit in the head by lightning. Inside, Kryttre weaves love and risk through tales of torn bodies and pigeons with tapeworms, love for the self and the friends that both hurt and help her. Then she takes it past the limit one more time. Death warmed over.

Terri Sutton is a free-lance writer who lives in Minneapolis.

Death Warmed Over is published by Cat Head Comics, Hudson, Mass.; Slutburger Stories by Rip Off Press, Auburn, Calif.; Dirty Plotte by Drawn and Quarterly, Montreal; Wimmen’s Comix, Tits & Clits, and Weirdo by Last Gasp Eco-Funnies, San Francisco; and Naughty Bits by Fantagraphics, Seattle.