Separating art from artist has always been a tricky proposition, but it’s doubly so when the artist in question is a symbol of liberation and subjugation both. Many artists from various media whose work I generally respect hold or held views I absolutely abhor, from Steve Ditko to Jim Steranko to Douglas Pearce to Peter Sotos, but it’s not all that difficult to say “their worldview’s repugnant, but I like their stuff” without coming off as a hypocrite. Respect for one facet of a person’s life isn’t a tacit endorsement of all of it. But what do you do with Virginia Woolf, who’s justly lauded for her trailblazing feminism and fearlessness in dealing with overtly queer subject matter and themes literally decades before such things were discussed in “polite” (as in, bigoted) company — but was also a fairly pronounced racist?
Cartoonist Victor Martins tackles that very conundrum in the blue riso-printed pages of Cabra Cabra, issue #22 in the Czap Books/Grindstone Comics visual poetry series Ley Lines, using Woolf’s Orlando as the prism though which he lyrically tackles her personal and artistic dichotomy and even hypocrisy. Ambitious as that project is in and of itself, though, there’s another, larger issue that Martins is interested in at least poking at the margins of, and that’s the fact that so many people’s initial exposure to art that explores or celebrates queerness comes via older works that are saturated in the racism and colonialism of their times. What’s a queer person of color in particular to do, then, when they go looking for sympathetic portrayals of folks like themselves in artistic “classics,” only to find that they’re still marginalized in those works due to their race or ethnicity?
Yeah — I haven’t got the answer to that one myself, and I’ll be the first to admit that as a straight white cis male I’m the wrong person to even explore the topic in any truly considered sense. Martins, however, most assuredly is, and the fact that there’s still an admirable amount of gentle humor mixed with the sinking sense of disappointment and righteous outrage in this exceptionally visually- and thematically-fluid comic is proof positive that he’s given this combustible quandary a lot of thought over the years. As such, then, although this is certainly as rhythmically and tonally loose as any Ley Lines you’d care to mention, it’s perhaps the most conceptually tight and focused entry in the series to date.
Still, even though his thoughts on matters at hand are organized and concisely laid-out, this comic never feels like a lecture per se. Much of that is down to Martins’ cartooning, which is about as eye-pleasing and non-threatening (as well as delightfully smooth and lush) as it comes, but another huge contributing factor is the simple fact that he understands that righteousness can be both funny and deeply felt. This balanced approach eludes most who try it, which is probably why so few actually do, but as with all things in this comic, Martins makes it seem natural and easy even though you know it’s anything but.
Another tributary springing forth from this admittedly contentious stream is the extent to which white supremacy has become almost as ingrained — if not overtly institutionalized — in LGBTQ culture as it has almost everywhere else in the West due the promulgation of cultural touchstones in which it’s explicitly or implicitly taken as either a given or, worse yet, a positive, but one only has so much time to follow every single thing down its respective rabbit hole. On that score, then, Martins subtly asks questions and leaves it to you to infer his answers. Not that it’s very difficult, mind you — he wears his heart on his sleeve throughout this comic, even as he avoids bludgeoning you by dint of his sheer cartooning skill. For that reason, I’d love to see him turn his attention to a long-form work tackling the history of queer art, cinema, literature, music, or even comics — but until that day comes. this is a great primer for a book that, at least so far, doesn’t exist.
It’s also a standout release in a series where standouts are, frankly, the norm, as well as being one of the more immediately-accessible Ley Lines to date. Victor Martins delivers a veritable tour de force here, and this is a book that I can more or less guarantee you’ll find yourself returning to time and time again, both to appreciate its visual literacy and consider the points it makes so eloquently.
Cabra Cabra is available for $6.00 from the Ley Lines storenvy site at http://leylines.storenvy.com/products/29611912-cabra-cabra-ley-lines-no-22
Review wrist check – if it seems like I wear this Zodiac “Super Sea Wolf 53” a lot, well — that’s because I do. This is is the “Blackout Edition,” and it’s one of those watches that literally goes with whatever you happen to be wearing.