Thematic weaving

I don’t know that it’s an intentional parallel, but the protagonist of Emma Hunsinger’s She Would Feel The Same experiences a kind of social opprobrium in respect of the way she conducts a relationship, and that kind of community coercion has clear echoes of the treatment traditionally meted out to anyone who is not both cis-gendered and heterosexual. Social groups like to police the sexual habits of their members, it seems, and Hunsinger’s short comic discloses the continued presence of that behaviour in a world which is supposedly open to all preferences and subjectivities. That she doubts her own take on the relationship in question will also seem familiar to anyone who lived in a world in which sexual difference was not validated by any kind of widespread visibility. I guess this observation is kind of an aside, but it does seem to me to be relevant in unpicking protagonist Chloe’s experience, and the responses of those around her.

I don’t think I need to write what’s different about the relationship in question, just that it is different to some set of norms. I don’t want to spoil this book for any of my imaginary readers, as it’s an excellent comic, and I would like them to experience it on Hunsinger’s terms, not on mine. Its excellence lies partly in this central theme and the way in which it’s handled, but also in the cartooning, the ostensibly chaotic but actually highly legible layouts, and in a thicket of hilarious anecdotes with which the piece is populated. Hunsinger draws one-panel cartoons for The New Yorker (and other outlets), and it’s interesting here to see the processes of that kind of cartooning practice deployed in a comic, a form which sometimes appears to inhabit a completely different world.

Hunsinger’s work is very much cartooning—although comics admit a great variety of stylistic approaches, there is clearly no way she is ever going to be tapped to supply the visuals for an adolescent leotard power fantasy of the sort that gets made into interminable series of deafening movies. Cartooning is about narrative, just like the parallel discipline of comics art, but this is sometimes obscured by the one-panel format in which much of it is published. It’s about using some marks to establish a character and to tell the reader something about them—how or what they are feeling, what their body language is, whether they are shy, confident, mischievous, intimidating or whatever, and more prosaically what’s happening to them physically. Hunsinger is absolutely brilliant at conveying those aspects of character. Where some cartoonists use a schematic approach to figure and vary them according to need, Hunsinger builds personality into the basic shape of her characters—as in the contrast between Chloe’s rectangular head and Phoebe’s circular one. There is never the slightest lack of clarity as to what emotional or social signals her characters are sending to each other. When I look at them on the page I see cartoonist’s scribbles—but when I recall them in my mind’s eye I see physical 3D people in hi-def 48 bit colour.

The brevity of the one-panel format also comes into its own, especially in a brief dating montage, which had me laughing out loud (‘Do you have any interest in being thrown off a bridge? Like in a sex way?’), but actually this entire book is rich with humour, and exploits Hunsinger’s one-panel skill-set to achieve a remarkable narrative economy: this ninety page comic is easily the equivalent of a two-hundred page novel (if such comparisons weren’t inherently spurious). There is a narrative closure at the end of the book, but it’s the right kind of narrative closure, the kind that says ‘here’s a formal pattern within which I’ve enclosed this story’, not the kind that implies closure is a feature of the raw experience from which stories are abstracted.

Leading towards that moment of closure is a web of thematic and symbolic elements, which encourage the reader to imagine and to reflect on Chloe’s experience. Closure itself is one of those themes, as is the related trope of perfection, and Hunsinger’s take on these themes is pleasingly nuanced—they weave in and out and illuminate one another without insisting on particular interpretations. This whole simple-yet-intricate narrative is wrapped up in a typically irresistible Shortbox package, which supplies its contents with a container perfectly matched to their sketchy simplicity, enclosing them in just the same way that the formal narrative encloses its thematic innards. This harmonious alignment of form and content is key to the success of this comic, a success which I have to say is pretty extraordinary when you consider that it was drafted as a college project at the Centre for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. Hunsinger appears to be at an early stage in her career: I predict it will be long and garlanded with plaudits.

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