“[A] few decades from now,” Megan Kelso wrote of Queen of the Black Black in the introduction she penned for it in 1998, “pick it up again, read it, and you will say, ‘Ahhh… so this is where she began.’” We’re not quite a decade and a half past the collection’s original publication by Highwater Books, and moreover, Kelso was speaking of her intention to be a comics lifer more than of her potential future creative evolution. Still, as prophecies go, it’s not bad. Collecting a dozen short stories originally self-published in Kelso’s one-woman anthology series Girlhero, Queen of the Black Black is an engaging catalog of both the strengths that would come to characterize her later work, and the weaknesses she’d overcome to get there.
Let’s get the weaknesses out of the way. In the author’s notes that accompany both the 1998 edition and this re-release, Kelso herself complains about her busy, labored-over lettering style, from which she says she “almost got carpal tunnel syndrome.” I feel her pain. All that those size-shifting capital letters do is scream “LOOK HOW HANDMADE I AM!” at top volume; very little function accompanies the form. Some of the earlier stories in the collection, particularly a strip about a bike messenger beset by an inexplicable rash of bike-part thefts called “Glamour”, suffer from a similar lack of visual volume control — a line that comes on too thick and too strong, a surfeit of irregularly laid-out panels, and a sense that despite some well-spotted blacks, the idea was just to get as much stuff on the page as possible. Even some later stories, lettered in a more restrained mixed-case and drawn with a line that’s thinner and cleaner, betray compositional weaknesses. “The Reunion”, a biographical vignette about her father, his high-school girlfriend, and the child they were forced to give up for adoption, at times feels like nothing more than a series of close-ups of faces in three-quarter profile, as if Kelso hadn’t yet developed the confidence to show people who weren’t looking at the audience for approval.
But the ideas, the ideas, the ideas. It could well be ten years since I last read these stories, and I’d either forgotten or never appreciated (my money’s on the latter) how astute and insightful they could be. Like a proto-Kevin Huizenga, she repeatedly turns up little rocks of human experience and chronicles what’s going on underneath, reintroducing us to feelings, sensations, and experiences we’d forgotten we’d had but recognize as if they happened this morning. The two strongest in this regard deal with childhood taboos. “The Daddy Mask” recounts a kid’s experience of seeing her parents in full grown-up mode during a house party, that blend of fascination and discomfort when you discover that your mommy and daddy aren’t always just a mommy and a daddy. “In Zanana” depicts a prepubescent girl’s Arabian Nights-style fantasies of exhibitionism and submission, capturing those early moments of mental and physical heat before we truly understand their context and import.
But Kelso’s just as good at excavating the details and the intensity of college-age relationships, presumably drawing on the experience of having recently been through some herself. (Her author’s notes are amusingly quick to reject overtly autobiographical elements, but still.) “Frozen Angel”‘s depiction of a young woman who rebounds from heartbreak with ostentatious, smiling coldness, and “Composition”‘s portrait of momentous emotion unfolding in a music major’s rehearsal room both hit a bit too close for comfort, frankly.
Finally, Kelso pulls off the neat trick of non-judgmentally observing judgmental people. Both the title story — its smooth, cool gray gouache coloring making it the loveliest of the bunch — and “Her Peas and Queues”, a story about a pair of twenty-somethings who quickly realize that exchanging stories about their herpes infections was a terrible idea (and whose punning title I didn’t grok until I wrote it out ten seconds ago), feature protagonists who find other characters intensely loathsome, findings we’re made privy to by their thought balloons. But Kelso overlays those findings atop sequences that depict the judged characters in the moment. We see what they did and why, and in that we recognize them as protagonists in their own right rather than bit players seen through the prism of another’s disapproval. It’s a universalizing, humanizing gesture from a cartoonist who’d go on to become, in her magnum opus Artichoke Tales, one of comics’ most humanistic artists. We knew her when.