“If you read this book and end up conflicted about [Patricia] Highsmith and her legacy: good,” writes Grace Ellis in the author’s notes of Flung Out of Space: Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith, co-created with artist Hannah Templer (Abrams ComicArts, 2022). In this considered reimagining of the life of renowned queer author Patricia Highsmith, readers are warned before the story even begins that this isn’t a tale of admiration or condemnation, but one about the complex nature of womanhood.
It’s clear from the onset that creators Ellis (known for Lumberjanes and Batwoman) and Templer (known for G.L.O.W and Cosmoknights) are interested primarily in the intricate inner workings of Highsmith’s psyche, and this desire is mirrored back onto the character of Highsmith that they’ve created. As in real life, the book’s Highsmith is consumed by a need to cure herself of her “uncontrollable but not unsatisfying lust for women.” She drains her bank account to pay for psychoanalysis sessions and voluntary conversion therapy (all the while still picking up women in both bars and group therapy). She supplements these psychiatrist fees by writing comics, which she detests, and on which she refuses to use her real name; she later used a pseudonym for her novel The Price of Salt (1952), to avoid being seen as a “lesbian book writer.” (She eventually used her name for a 1989 reprinting by Bloomsbury, for which the book was renamed Carol, but continued to use the pseudonym in earlier reprints.) In Flung Out of Space Highsmith strives for greater literary acclaim as she lets everyone in the Exciting Comics bullpen know that she’s better than comics and better than them.
These clashing fragments of Highsmith’s life are depicted visually through Templer’s rigid panelling, in which blocks and blocks of panels are sometimes gridlocked together on a page, becoming looser on the next page only to disperse entirely on the following page. Highsmith’s need to compartmentalize in order to function from day to day is strategically reflected in this intentional line work, as she feels boxed in and confined at times, and then freer when she’s able to do what she loves — be it writing or being with women. Templer’s considered use of color accentuates this even further, as soft peach contrasts with smoky charcoal black: the curl of hair and soft lipstick shades of women Highsmith desires versus the bleakness when she strives for heteronormative complacency; the bright yet vapid Pop art comics “suitable only for the illiterate” versus the dark and serious “respectable” literature she seeks to write (and would go on to do with Strangers on a Train). These conflicting ideals remain at the forefront of Highsmith’s mind and, as such, of the book.
It’s bittersweet to see an author whose work was — and in many ways still is — revolutionary to the queer literary canon wrestle so intently with her own sexuality and identity. (Carol was one of the first US novels to depict a happy ending for a lesbian couple.) The journey, of course, is a familiar one for queer people but there is no modern-day happy ending for Highsmith, who would never write another book like Carol. It is ironic that her life is reimagined in a medium she so loathed, but Ellis and Templer have used it with great care to create a tableau of the life of a woman who was full of contradictions. The picture they paint of Highsmith is neither positive nor negative, nor perhaps even all that real, but at the end it rings true in the want for truth that we all desire.
Flung Out of Space: Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith by Grace Ellis and Hannah Templer (2022) is published by Abrams ComicArts and is available online and in bookstores.