Red Rock Baby Candy

Shira Spector weaves a dreamlike graphic memoir from ink, watercolor, and mixed media collage. In its nonlinear timeline the story details, among other things, Spector’s pubescent sexual awakening, her miscarriage and struggle with infertility, and her father’s decline in health and ultimate demise due to a brain tumor. The first death that shapes Spector is her Bubbie’s—a story that is interspersed with lyrics from the children’s clapping song “Down Down Baby.” One page features: “Gramma, Gramma, sick in bed. Called the doctor, and the doctor said…” when a parent interjects with the news: “Bubbie is dead.” The story jumps to a portrayal of a country/folk artist singing the book’s titular song, a “queer infertility anthem” about the magical Red Rock Baby Candy Mountain, where babies grow on bushes and are naturally well-behaved. This quick leap from trauma to comedy is par for the course in this big, beautiful, messy book.

It’s often difficult to glean the story from the art, since many pages feature poetic words splayed out across images rather than a clear explanation of what happens next. These pages are emotionally resonant and evocative; it’s possible Spector intended to give readers the opportunity to feel what it’s like to experience these things, rather than detail the minutiae of her own story. The early pages of the book are all in black-and-white pen drawings with hatched shading and occasional grey ink washes for additional shades. Spector adds pink as an initial spot color, mostly for lipstick, flowers, veins, and blood vessels, the latter two of which remind me of the external hearts and snipped arteries in Frida Kahlo’s painting The Two Fridas. Gradually, a second spot color is introduced – blue, such that the pink and blue juxtapose and seem to poke fun at the binary of genders assigned to babies before they are equipped to understand their own identities. Once the story turns to miscarriage and infertility, Spector brings in paper collage. Most of these images appear to be cut from vintage Betty Crocker cookbooks, with layers of ornately-decorated cake, hard-boiled eggs, and sliced ham forming Spector’s own miscarrying body. It’s visceral and truly unlike anything I’ve seen in a book; I could see many pages from this book featured as stand-alone pieces in a feminist art gallery.

When Spector finally has a kid, the book shifts to a realm of full color illustrations, where it remains as it delves into a history of her childhood sexual experiences (including a scene many people—myself included—can relate to, in which she discusses masturbating to Judy Blume’s seminal book Forever) and her gradual realization that she’s a lesbian. One page stands out among the psychedelic illustrations due to its computer font paragraphs and its title across the top: “On My First Fingering.” This page details a sexual assault that turns into an ad for Sexy Baby Time perfume (likely a reference to Love’s Baby Soft perfume), which girls should purchase because “Boys like the way babies smell. Brand new and vulnerable…So delicious they want to ruin them.” This is not an easy book to read.

I could go on about the fertility doctors who say Spector was having trouble getting pregnant because “it wasn’t the natural way,” or how she proposed marriage because she “secretly…hoped getting married would bring my stubbornly dead dad back,” but instead I will say this is a strange book filled with a mix of straightforward and stream of consciousness writing, as well as a blend of realistic drawing and abstract lumps. Like Lynda Barry’s work, it strikes that delicate balance between a childlike perspective and a very, very adult one. Also like Lynda Barry’s work, and like Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, most pages of this book feel like they were quickly sketched in a notebook hidden in a high school desk from the teacher’s prying eyes. It’s powerful and different and addresses plenty of important topics in a moving and thought-provoking way. I would recommend this book for most adult graphic memoir collections.

Red Rock Baby Candy
By Shira Spector
Fantagraphics, 2021
ISBN: 9781683964049

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation: Lesbian, Jewish
Character Representation: Lesbian, Jewish

SCI: The Jewish Comics Anthology Volume 2

SCI: The Jewish Comics Anthology Volume 2 is a treasure trove of 18 science fiction stories adapted from traditional Jewish teachings, legends, folklore, and mythology that started as a Kickstarter project. Several entries in the collection are illustrated prose pieces, but most of them are told in comic book format. The tone, tempo, and color palette are as varied as the diverse authors and illustrators that created new adaptations of the tales for this second anthology of Jewish tales.

In the foreword, editor Steven M. Bergson states that one of the intentions of this volume was to “introduce obscure, offbeat, and bizarre tales when we can.” A secondary objective is to make the collection accessible to readers of all ages. While I agree that the anthology met the first intention, I am not sure that every entry met the second goal. Many of the traditional stories are convoluted and, even with the individual introductory preface for each of the entries, the nuances and storytelling may be too complex for younger readers, even dedicated fans of science fiction. Many of the stories, adapted from the Torah and the Talmud (the compilation of the debates of historical rabbis debating what the Torah means), will be unfamiliar to many non-Jewish readers. This reader was particularly taken with the introductions offering background context and, occasionally, brief editorial commentary on significant aspects of individual items.

Among the many unusual tales, however, are the reworkings of the more familiar stories that will resonate with younger readers, such as “Stone Soup,” a traditional European folktale found in many cultures; “It Could be Worse,” one that the editors label “the crowded house folktale”; and “Something from Nothing.” This latter reworking, written by Trina Robbins and illustrated by Rossi Gifford, is one of my favorite entries. Robbins, the daughter of a tailor and a former tailor herself, breathes a fresh rendition on this timeless Yiddish folktale. The use of the color red for the blanket and it’s recreations garnish attention in the otherwise black and white illustrations for this tale, reminiscent of the use of the color in the 1993 film Schindler’s List. Taking place in the near future, the story reminds us all of the need for historical memory along with hopes for the future.

Several stories are ablaze with neon colors and creative panel layouts while others, such as Robbin’s tale, use color only to highlight significant elements. Many of the characters are identifiable as human while many of them are truly from another universe or time. The illustrative styles differ as much as the stories themselves and complement the stories being told. Included at the end of the stories are five full-page illustrations that are wordless stories in themselves. One that particularly resounded with me was a stunning and hauntingly beautiful retro-future “Golem” by David Mack. Biographies for the creative talent involved in the anthology rounds out the worthy collection.

SCI: The Jewish Comics Anthology Volume 2
By Steven M. Bergson
Art by David Mack
ISBN: 9780987715289
Alternate History Comics, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Adult
Series Reading Order

Classic Fantastic: Of Maus and Metamaus

Maus is a framed memoir – a survivor’s tale told to and by the survivor’s son.  The primary subject is a man (Vladek Spiegelman) who lived through the Holocaust and had a son (Art Spiegelman) who went on to write his biography Maus.  In Maus, the Jews are depicted as mice and the Nazis are depicted as cats.  Other Nationalities are also anthropomorphized.  There is more to the comic than extended metaphor however.  In fact, Art Spiegelman won a Special Pulitzer Prize for it in 1992, and it is widely regarded as a seminal work in comics.

In MetaMaus, the author of Maus revisits this work that has come to define him.  It is primarily structured around a series of taped conversations between Spiegelman and Hillary Chute that read like one long interview in the book.  It is broken up by other short pieces, such as interviews with Art’s immediate family (wife Françoise, daughter Nadja and son Dashiell), short comics previously published, and remarks made at various other times (such as when receiving an award in Germany).

My recollection is that I first read Maus while high school, probably as a freshman or sophomore,  and was immediately struck by the aforementioned overarching animal metaphor.  The text sat in my head percolating, (there is a weight to it – the first impression of Maus, possibly due to the subject matter) and when I got back into comics after college it began to recede and was perhaps superseded by other comics that more fully represented my experiences.  I wanted to re-read Maus and did so before starting MetaMaus. Maus holds up.

Due to its framed structure, Maus cannot be seen as only a Holocaust story, it is also very literally a survivors tale (the subtitle of the first volume).  Anja and Vladek the younger lived through the Holocaust, and had Art who is surviving Vladek the elder who survived the Holocaust.  It is a remarkable story.  How many couples, who married before the war, and were then sent Auschwitz, made it out alive?  Just contemplating that is enough to give a child an existential crisis.  In reading MetaMaus we find out that on one level that is what Maus is all about – coming to grips with being the child of survivors.  This is perhaps why the story’s art seems so intimate, so personal.

Spiegelman himself at times describes it (the cartooning of Maus) as done in somewhat of a confessional style.  He chose not to downsize the art, but rather Art drew Maus at the size he chose to publish it at.  This was deliberate, he wanted the imperfections of his drawing hand to be on display.  In other places in MetaMaus we can see Art draw and redraw individual panels and scenes – this gives a sense of the work and deliberateness that went into the construction of the seemingly “rough” and imperfect drafting.

Art often calls himself a technically poor artist.  In that he feels like he can’t really draw all that well.  While I am not equipped to judge the technical mastery of his lines, I will say that it is fascinating to read the more general thoughts of cartooning that Spiegelman has.  Most of these are viewed through the lens of Maus and his career in general, nonetheless they illustrate what thought and struggle the artist has put in his pursuit of cartooning.  I very much liked his analysis of Harvey Kurtzman and the three panel beat, which he then shows an analogous panel in Maus.  It shows very directly what has influenced him.

MetaMaus does a phenomenal job of contextualizing Maus.  Reading through it enhances any previous or subsequent reading of Maus.  In this way MetaMaus must be seen as a wildly successful publication.