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The title pages that break up Long Red Hair, a richly drawn comics memoir by Canadian artist and writer Meags Fitzgerald, do so according to personal milestones that materialized during specific years. In “1994,” a game of Dungeons & Dragons with her mother yields a discussion about self-worth. In “2002,” she kisses a boy, deeply, near her school locker for the first time. The years — the only text on the title page — are typically scrawled in bold tangerine numerals. The numbers pop nicely, as Fitzgerald works in a subdued autumnal palette of army greens and browns, shading heavily the corners of living room interiors and applying great care to ornate patterns on sleeping bags. Any strains of the orange-red variety — used for sweaters, a coffee cup, and of course, hair — are tonally powerful.
In Long Red Hair, published by Conundrum Press, Fitzgerald examines conversations that helped shape at how she looks at herself, as well as the difficult road to her coming out as queer. Her family was refreshingly accepting, but her path toward identifying as queer, or “pansexual,” as she writes in a brief afterword, was still marked with probing reflection and uncertainty. When this is front and center, the book is most visually bold. There’s a loose, illustrated storybook feel to the memoir, and venturesome experiments with insets and converging panels, whether the action is framed against countless curled lines within the textured surface of a carpeted floor or in a bedroom darkened by harsh strokes that jut off in all directions.
The most visually dazzling chapter could’ve been titled “1487” to mark the publishing year of The Malleus Maleficarum — a Medieval book with a bright, pumpkin-hued jacket that her friend discusses as having ignited the prosecution of witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries. Per the small dialogue copy that runs along Fitzgerald’s crowded, micro-sized drawings of witch hangings and burnings (old textbook-style), the dusty tome lays out the signifiers of a witch: “left-handedness, birthmarks, moles,” and red hair. She and her friend cite harrowing numbers: “An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft, most of them women.” Courts targeted empowered women who “disturbed the order.” Stacy Schiff’s 2015 book The Witches: Salem, 1962, excerpted in The New Yorker in September, cites independent thought as reason enough to be hauled off to the judge.
“Witches could be muttering, contentious malcontents or inexplicably strong and unaccountably smart,” writes Schiff.
Otherness and a wealth of independent thought underscore the smart but dialogue-heavy Long Red Hair. Fitzgerald favors Ouija boards and occult-themed games at sleepovers, and knows — but doesn’t care — that “the bullies” at school are likely to notice when her mother dyes her hair red at age 10. “I had more bullies than friends, and it felt like the popular kids existed just to make me feel inferior,” she writes. We surprisingly don’t see the relevant period that follows. For all of Long Red Hair’s careful articulation of Fitzgerald’s most private discussions, a late 1990s spell spent in a Catholic junior high — an atmosphere likely rife with hardship for any singular-minded person, and a time when the artist felt “both ugly and stupid” and “inferior,” but eventually excelled in academics and “earned some respect” — is relegated to a page of curt, handwritten text. The bulk of Long Red Hair goes toward showcasing a practiced hand at illustration. Everything from confessional conversations about celibacy to fascinating connections to various figures from history books, to uneventful but important sleepovers as a kid, get a resonant visual treatment. A handful of formative years — delineated by emphatic numerals ’99, ’00, and ’01 — that were critical to Fitzgerald’s building pride and confidence get the copy treatment instead. It feels like some pages are missing.
Aside from grappling with a preference for women, men, or both, Fitzgerald never fell into place socially when she was younger. In some sense, this is better relayed in 2014’s Photobooth: A Biography than in Long Red Hair. As told in the artist’s dense, crowdfunded hybrid of memoir comics and a history of automated photography, she moved into her family’s unfinished basement as a kid. There, she began collecting vintage air-mail envelopes and old picture frames. Her hobbies were called “weird,” and professors later dismissed her interest in photobooths. But Fitzgerald found comfort in drawing, and a classroom desk’s worth of sketches in Long Red Hair identifies a mastery of illustration at an early age. Expertise in crafting a good, if sometimes skimpy, memoir like this one would come later.
Dean Haspiel, who has produced a variety of comics including memoir, and has even earned an Emmy, mulled over the genre once at Manhattan’s Housing Works Bookstore Café. It was March 2013, an event called “The Cartoonist in Comics: Using Autobiography in Graphic Novels,” and a projection screen behind him showed a rendering of the big, darkened underside of the Brooklyn Bridge. Boxy apartment-building tops sprang up from under both sides of the bridge’s steel-wire-spun suspension cables, but even among the brawny mass of concrete and metalwork, the panel’s real action was center-left, where a slim bearded figure clad in sunglasses prepared to snatch a purse from the woman walking ahead of him.
Haspiel’s subject understandably looked like a self-portrait, as he was reading from his semi-autobiographical strip Street Code.
“I think all ‘autobio’ is ‘semi-autobio,’” he said that night about the boundaries of drawing memoir comics. “There is a certain limitation to both, as you can only be a voyeur into my life.”
Once a black-and-white webcomic, Street Code is getting a new life in a print anthology published by Hang Dai Editions/Alternative Comics. Called Beef with Tomato, the book looks at Haspiel’s life as an artist and, in his words, a voyeur peering into the lives of other people on his crowded block in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens neighborhood. Spots of juvenile humor fizzle quickly in Beef, and the gags play out in stark contrast to the serious yarns. The best stories here are either punchy odes to his neighbors like those he drew for his Opposable Thumbs or exploratory works that speak to his background in both alt comics and superhero stuff.
Oddball characters and tangible New York moments populate the comics and a few essays here from Haspiel. He is candid about the hardships of love and city life. He stumbles through breakups and bluntly confesses feelings of powerlessness on 9/11, as he details the unique horror of having left open a kitchen window in the path of ash and smoke. There’s a symmetrically marvelous one-page eulogy — originally created for BKLYNR in 2013 — to the studio he shared with recently deceased friend Seth Kushner, complete with the skeletal Kentile Floors sign zigzagging in the background. The evocative “Snow Dope” uses clever sequencing to depict a drunken winter stroll over the Gowanus Canal Bridge. Haspiel, ever-expressive, looks elfish under a black sky flecked with snow chunks. He pauses to admire the barreling F train and “flurries of crystal swoop[ing]”around him, and goes for vivid, confessional language to relate how it felt for him to head home alone after a soiree in Park Slope.
“The parties afforded me less than an hour of bittersweet relief,” he writes. “I realized that it was better to reject rote social banter to quell my fear of being alone and embrace solitude this holiday weekend.”
Haspiel’s boyish awe of Brooklyn is curbed by racist talk from elderly neighbors and an account of having lived on the block where ABC Radio reporter George Weber was murdered in 2009. The latter is a mini-epic fitted with angularly skewed panels, action that crosses page gutters, heavy shadow use to depict suspicion and horror. Alongside spotless figure drawing and a penchant for crisp cityscape detail, Beef with Tomato’s pages are loaded with observation and thoughtful reflection. And even if we’re just voyeurs, most of these comics feel like sincere narratives, drunkenly spilling out of Dean on the snowy walk home.
Meags Fitzgerald’s Long Red Hair is published by Conundrum Press and available from Amazon and other online booksellers. Dean Haspiel’s Beef with Tomato is published by Hang Dai Editions/Alternative Comics and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.