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Love in the time of comics

Diane Obomsawin tells tales of budding love

Alison Bechdel’s long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For was an early and pioneering instance of comics as a medium to discuss lesbian and gay life and as a representation of lesbians in American society. The comic, featuring commentary on the politics of the day alongside ongoing character drama, set a high standard. “The Bechdel Test,” first introduced in the comic, has now gone on to become standard shorthand for female underrepresentation in film. Anyone looking to make their mark in the medium will find themselves challenged to bring a fresh perspective.

One cartoonist who certainly has something to contribute is Montreal-based animator and underground comic veteran Diane Obomsawin. On Loving Women is her latest collection of comics, published this week by Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly. This short collection (80 pages) features a series of accounts following the sexual awakening of Obomsawin’s friends or lovers. Her panels aren’t populated with people as we recognize them, but rather a variety of simply-rendered anthropomorphized animals with huge goofy cartoon eyes that dominate their faces.

In the first story, six-year-old Mathilde covers her bedroom walls with drawings of horses. She goes on to explain how all “the women I fall for always have horse faces.” Sure enough, whereas a boyfriend she has at school is a mouse, the women that Mathilde falls for literally have horses faces. This touch is reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s depiction of Jews as mice and Germans as cats in Maus, a graphic novel about the experience of the author’s father as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. Fortunately, this is as far as the potential symbolism goes, with the choices of particular animals often left mysterious, more like Matt Groening’s self conscious rabbits in his long-running comic strip Life is Hell than Spiegelman’s mice. With its bold simplicity and idiosyncrasy, Obomsawin’s art brings a unity to the various accounts.

While Obomsawin’s characters, drawn in simple black and white, may seem unassuming and almost childlike, we soon find them ready to get some action. The stories manage to capture a variety of experiences, charged with the exuberance of the young characters who are discovering their identities. Confusion turns into self-assured desire as Obomsawin’s characters find themselves, and lovers.

Artists and audiences have rightly focused on the hostility that many gay and lesbian teenagers are met with as they grow up, an issue that Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” internet-based program brought into sharp focus. On Loving Women manages to capture a different, yet complementary perspective: how personal confusion eventually leads to self discovery. And discovery can be found in all kinds of places, from the school yard to a long train journey having lesbian erotica read out by the niece of a nun in the next door cabin.

These stories capture the excitement of being young and discovering yourself, and despite recounting one particular experience, manage to capture something universal. Where On Loving Women succeeds the most is where the memories being shared are those the author’s friends and lovers seem happiest to remember. Obomsawin’s efforts to convey their sentiments are nowhere clearer than in her decision to end on a high note.

That is not to say everyone in these accounts has it easy. Marie’s mother sends her away to Ontario to separate her from her girlfriend, and later moves her to a different school when she starts a relationship with a fellow pupil. Confusion leads another girl on a bout of serial promiscuity with every kind of man. There is also jealousy as girlfriends are stolen, and disappointment when advances are spurned in dramatic fashion – not to mention the sorry string of boyfriends who are left baffled.

One of the book’s successes, which falls in line with Drawn & Quarterly’s other publications, is in capturing a snapshot of life in Canada, and specifically Montreal. Maxime takes us to Babyface, one of Montreal’s first lesbian bars, where we learn “there was always a lot going on in the restroom.” Like Bechdel, who would often editorialize on the politics of the day, Obomsawin weaves the legal reforms of the 1970s that decriminalized homosexuality in Canada into Maxime’s story. All in all, On Loving Women is a provocative and powerful use of the comic medium, evocatively documenting the experiences of a generation of lesbians.

On Loving Women is available at Drawn & Quarterly (211 Bernard W.) for $16.95.