3 Panels is a monthly column examining graphic novels and their influences on everyday life.
I lived abroad in Argentina in 2008 with a handful of other 20-somethings from around the world. As the only Black student, I stood out in the very white, Eurocentric city. People openly stared as I walked down the streets. Men murmured morena as they passed by me. While dining at a seaside restaurant in Mar de Plata, I looked up from my lunch plate to see customers peering over the booth watching me eat.
Vocalizing my frustrations ruffled the comforts of the others in my group, who were white. They dismissed any discussion of racism. The program director, who was a native Argentine but grew up in the US, insisted that the issue was not about race but that I was a “purple person.” She argued that most people in Argentina had never seen a Black person because Black people did not exist in the nation. “If you saw a purple person walking down the street, wouldn’t you stare too? That’s all it is.”
But that’s not all it is, and it never has been: This study abroad experience inspired me to conduct my master’s research on the existence and erasure of Black history, culture, and identity in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
In Cyclopedia Exotica (color by Nikolas Ilic; Drawn & Quarterly, May 2021), Aminder Dhaliwal explores the lives of purple people or, in this case, cyclopes. Aiming a thoughtful lens at the characters, Dhaliwal navigates a modern world where cyclopes live alongside two-eyes people. Middle-aged Pol is ghosted on Tinder by two-eyes women. Bron wrestles with his identity after undergoing a risky eye surgery that leaves him with a second, withered eye. Tim and Pari, who are a two-eyes and a cyclops, respectively, are married with kids on the way.
The characters attend art shows and therapy appointments. They struggle with dating, pregnancies, and their career choices. But despite the gentle tone and laugh out loud moments, Dhaliwal examines critical issues prevalent in our lives today. Cyclopedia Exotica delves into discrimination, racism, interracial relationships, sexuality, and disability. Being a cyclops is more than just being phenotypically different from the dominant two-eyes culture. Companies advertise products and medical procedures hailed to “improve” the perceived deficiencies in a cyclops’ life. Cyclopes are disenfranchised and fetishized. Even cyclopes sexuality is reduced to the uniqueness of their genitalia. (Men have two-pronged penises and women have three vaginas.)
No one is judging cyclopes because they have one eye and they have never before seen a person with only one eye. The world at-large categorizes and evaluates cyclopes based on their single eyes. It reduces them to objects or, inanely, purple people whose value is determined by how they affect the pleasure and comfort of the majority.
Self-love allows the characters in Cyclopedia Exotica to defy the one-dimensional narratives that people place on them. By the book’s end, each character chooses to love who they are outside of social expectations. It’s a neat and tidy ending that fits the graphic novel, but it is not representative of reality. For that, I turned to Red Rock Baby Candy (Fantagraphics, March 2021) by Shira Spector. In a mesmerizing graphic memoir, Spector details her battles to accept herself. The book leads with a critique of the beauty industry’s influences on how she “should” look. She buys lip stains and perfumes that make her smell like flowers and cotton candy. Yet, despite the feminine illusion they are supposed to confer, Spector admits that she still doesn’t feel lovely. What’s going on inside her cannot be corrected by creams and potions. “I am haphazard. I am dissonant. I am Frankenstein in a sundress.” she writes. But before Spector reaches a resolution, she changes the topic.
The memoir alternates nonlinearly through a decade in Spector’s life where she grieves her father’s death, worries about parenting her child, loves and feels despair for her body, and grapples with infertility and mortality. All the while, Spector defines her own narrative through a rollercoaster of hallucinogenic images. The wild, cluttered ride is beautiful and rhythmic in its orchestrated chaos. Sometimes it’s unreadable, but often that doesn’t matter. The swirls, shaky handwriting, and mixed media elements pull you into Spector’s pain and joy where you sometimes find your own pain lying beneath the energetic patterns and bright colors.
In a way, the messiness and complexities of Red Rock Baby Candy reflect the processes we undergo to understand and empower ourselves. Even when we can identify the catalysts of our self-destruction, resolution isn’t always apparent. For Spector, her partner is a grounding presence through it all. They are a world unto themselves where Spector thrives. In a moving ode to her partner in the last section of the book, Spector writes, “Nothing is better than you at the end of the alley.” But there’s nothing better than Spector who, in these last pages, is most clearly able to celebrate the intricacies in her life and become a vibrant, self-described “infertile, high-femme, low income, non-biological Jewish mom, dyke drama queen.”
The journey to this point of self-acceptance isn’t easy. The people we expect to help us can disappear or disappoint us. Sometimes the journey we believe we’re supposed to take ends up veering off to a different direction. Lee Lai addresses the varying directions of our personal journeys in Stone Fruit (Fantagraphics, May 2021). Her characters must abandon the world they carefully constructed to achieve the true self-acceptance.
The graphic novel follows Ray and Bron, a queer couple whose relationship thrives on the Tuesdays and Saturdays when they spend the day with Ray’s rambunctious niece, Nessie. As the trio explores the world, their bodies transform into languid limbed monstrous beings that chase a feral dog through wild park areas, streams, and storm drains. These happy visits crash to a halt when Ray returns Nessie to Ray’s controlling older sister, who bristles at Bron’s presence. These stilted meetings exacerbate an already brewing tension between Ray and Bron. Once they realize that Nessie is a means of life support for their dying relationship, they break up and return to their own fractured families for healing.
The graphic novel’s soothing watercolor palette contributes to its tender and heartbreaking tone. The dialogue free panels build on the tension between Bron and Ray as they lie in bed together unable to speak to one another, or while they walk their neighborhoods alone in search of stability post-breakup.
Stone Fruit’s narrative focuses on repairing fractured sibling bonds; however, the characters undergo their own individual processes for defining themselves in spaces where they are misunderstood or pushed to conform to an incompatible social ideal. Ray wrestles with the collapse of the structures she erected to feel comfortable. And Bron confronts a family that downplays her depression and hasn’t quite accepted her trans identity.
Both characters find a sliver of healing and peace at the end of the novel. And in the process, redefine how they see themselves in respect to each other. “Things are changing everywhere,” Ray says to Bron in the final act. It’s with sadness that she admits their relationship is not the same, but it’s the way it needs to be for each of them to be who they truly are.
There was a point in my study abroad in Argentina where I stopped debating with the others in my group. Trying to get them to accept my concerns became about proving my existence. It was clear that no one was going to agree with me because they did not want to see the flaws in the world they were trying to enjoy. That experience nagged me after I returned home. I couldn’t stop thinking about the narratives that were being forced on me. But I also couldn’t stop the need to expose the truth, on a somewhat existential level, of what I had experienced. Two years later, I journeyed back to Argentina alone. It was demoralizing at times. Yet, I realized in a way that nothing was better than me – the me in the past and the me that stood in that country once again exemplified infallible truths. I was legitimized by the very fact that I lived.