A viral disease is sweeping the world, killing indiscriminately. Well, nearly. Its fatal impact is concentrated in a particular minority, one that many in society seem to regard as expendable, as less valuable than the average. At least in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’s socially unacceptable to vilify older people openly, or to characterise their deaths as an acceptable cost, but during the height of the AIDS pandemic, before any effective treatments had been developed, gay male humans had to endure the most horrific abuse and exclusion, and the most hurtful things imaginable were said openly in the mainstream media. It should be matter of intense national shame that our society was so unpleasant, so unbelievably horrible to a group of its members who were not only not doing anybody any harm, but who were living in ground zero of the most appalling tragedy to strike affluent societies in the post-war era. I feel ashamed, just for having continued to hide behind the performance of convenient social roles like ‘man’ and ‘heterosexual’ when I should have been shouting my natural queerness in solidarity at the top of my voice. I continue to perform those roles to this day, for convenience, for ease, despite knowing very well what tenuous constructed categories they are, and how riddled with entrenched interests.
Kate Charlesworth lived through that era without such luxuries (or cop-outs), and Sensible Footwear: a girl’s guide is her graphic memoir of life as a lesbian in a society which has gone from ‘what you two need is a man to sort you out apiece’ to an openly homosexual woman leading the Scottish Conservatives. She shows the impact of AIDs on lesbians, who were not likely to contract HIV themselves, but who lost huge numbers of their friends and allies, and had to contend with society’s hysterically homophobic response to this hard-to-transmit disease. By the time I got around to reading this comic, a new pandemic was shutting down everyone’s accustomed behaviours, and Charlesworth (who was born in 1950) was a member of its most vulnerable group of potential sufferers. It was her depiction of the AIDs epidemic that started my tears, but I soon found myself overwhelmed with regret for all the bigotry and nastiness that has been directed at a subset of our people whose ‘difference’ isn’t even a difference, when it comes down to it, so much as an honesty.
The book elicited this powerful response in me through the simple expedient of telling it how it is, without melodrama or sentimentality or self-pity—and anyone who isn’t moved by it, I would guess, must be either a bigot or a stone. There’s a framing narrative, in which Charlesworth is on holiday in Tenerife with her partner and two friends, reminiscing—and the autobiography which this encloses is interrupted in turn by pages of history, outlining significant events in LGBTQ history with illustrations. These pages work like a museum display, using objects like badges, concert tickets, business cards, magazine covers and posters to articulate a narrative whose schematic text panels serve the ancillary function of labels in a display case. This is a very effective technique, which creates an impression of an era far more economically than narrative might. Alongside some more discursive sequences which combine dialogue with brief passages of text, this enables Charlesworth to broaden and contextualise her personal account without heaping a great weight of exposition on the reader.
The remainder of the book, the comic-strip part, distinguishes the framing narrative by giving it a more decorative, brightly coloured cartooning style, and for the most part, freer layouts. The autobiographical sequences are drawn more precisely, and use colour more sparingly, either to tint an entire scene, or to highlight significant features. Charlesworth pays a good deal of attention to page-layout, not simply as an aspect of visual storytelling, but in its own right, ensuring that the book is varied and engaging. Clearly it’s possible to produce a very readable comic in which the pages have a consistent appearance throughout (Charles Burns’s Black Hole springs to mind, as I’ve read it recently), but Charlesworth’s approach suits an account in which multiple narrative threads and multiple historical eras are in play. Her pacing is also very varied, with relatively few pages entirely marked out by the regular beat of a rectilinear panel layout.
There were some double spreads in which it took me a moment to realise I needed to read right across (although this was signalled by the panel border styles), and it is sometimes difficult to parse the order of speech, especially in phone calls, but for the most part Charlesworth’s visual narrative is both clear and propulsive. Similarly, there are moments when the dialogue is a bit too expository to ring true, but my predominant impression was of characters realised with vivid transparency. Charlesworth is alert to the limitations of memoir—she interrupts the framing narrative’s dialogue at one point, with a curtain inscribed ‘because some things really are private…’ This only enhances her capacity to immerse the reader, and to solicit their empathy with her characters, not least with her synonymous narrator-protagonist. There are a couple of concluding revelations, which are reserved and prepared so adeptly as to thematically unify and cast a light back on the entire preceding narrative—no mean feat, given that it’s been long and complex.
Charlesworth’s drawing style is free, but only loose when it needs to be, and she produces a commendable sense of spatial coherence—some quite successful and accomplished comic artists basically draw characters on scenes, but she locates bodies in spaces. Her faces are expressive (and very recognisable when she’s drawing a public figure), and she modulates their position on a continuum from ‘fairly cartoony’ to ‘fairly representational’ according to the needs and tone of the moment. The result is an ease of identification with the experiences she describes, putting the reader in the centre of a network of ideas and recollections—she uses her autobiography to relate the big historical events to the nitty-gritty of life, to social history, and as such her book is as vivid a history of queer life as the general reader could hope to find. What happened (Section 28, Stonewall, AIDs, equal marriage, all the rest of it…) is only meaningful when we have the wherewithal to imagine what it was like. This beautiful and generous memoir gives us that.