Anya Davidson has described School Spirits as a book about female friendship. And it is: Oola and Garf are the Maggie and Hopey of death metal, best friends who weather the storms of high school, petty crime, and youthful infatuation together. Still, that’s a bit like saying Moby-Dick is a book about a whale. Their friendship, like all deep friendships, is foundational; it is a fact through which Davidson examines aspects of gender from a specifically female perspective. What’s refreshing about School Spirits, and what keeps it from feeling didactic, is that Davidson doesn’t try to tackle stereotypes head-on; it’s not the point of the book. Instead, the notion that gender isn’t represented by a set of characteristics is woven into the fabric of the story. It’s a given in all of Davidson’s work to date that typical male and female roles aren’t simply reversed or questioned but utterly dismantled.
School Spirits is divided into titled chapters, and the stories feel like interconnected vignettes. The book opens with Oona and Garf trying unsuccessfully to score tickets to a Hrothgar concert from a radio show, and then follows them through a day of school, hanging out with friends, perpetrating criminal mischief, and, finally, attending the Hrothgar concert. Oona and Garf are “weirdo girls,” as Davidson has described them; their appearances and behavior don’t hew to conventional notions of femininity. Oona resembles a gangly Tintin with a reverse quiff and spends a good part of the book on a wild, desperate tear through the city with a security guard hot on her heels. Garf is more sanguine than Oona, but resolute in her sense of self, as when she castigates her friend Inga for prioritizing her looks: “You’re a math genius, Inga,” she cries. “Stop trying to pretend you’re normal … You’re a freak like us!”
That diversion from the norm extends to the storytelling. Female friendships are the main thread of the book, but among these more straightforward chapters are fantastical digressions into the characters’ interior lives, most of which follow a theme of transformation. The first one arrives when the girls visit a record shop to listen to the new Hrothgar album. Oona is transfigured by the music and enters a dream state in which Hrothgar becomes her guru. There, in the seventh dimension, where he goes to “contemplate the music of the spheres,” Hrothgar addresses Oona’s anxieties and her feeling of being tormented by unanswerable questions: “What is the value of a human life?” “Which activities are worthwhile?” “Why is my capacity for understanding so limited?” He teaches her to concentrate her uncertainty and unruliness and dispel it, but the vision ends before she has mastered the lesson.
In English class, the girls are reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, whose protagonist changes sex partway through the novel, undoing the idea that women and men are defined by a set of characteristics and interests. The story inspires Oona and Garf, each of whom fall into a reverie about the kind of man they’d be. Oona imagines herself as a “super tough,” bar-busting barbarian who then becomes an aeronautical engineer who then develops the ability to talk to animals who then becomes synesthete who then becomes a painter. Garf’s male doppelgänger also goes through a lengthy series of transformations: legally blind, shy, crime-solving astrophysicist; archaeologist, yoga practitioner, naturalist; neurosurgeon; cowboy; jungle boy; womanizing, “renegade” movie director. The usual categories for women are nowhere to be found, and as men, Oona and Garth find themselves, as does Orlando, without the limitations that usually hamper women. But it’s telling that they must imagine themselves in the guise of the opposite sex in order to visualize pursuing these endeavors.
Gender roles are likewise upended in romantic situations. Garf is infatuated with her classmate Lilly-Rose, who is pregnant and so an outsider in the high school social hierarchy. “I think she looks beautiful—like a planet or a shiny new coin,” Garf effuses. “I’m always gonna love her no matter how much gross or tragic shit happens to her!” Oona has a crush on her classmate Grover and thinks about “what all I’d like to do to you.” Over four pages, she imagines more than thirty “erotic” acts, including boiling him in a cauldron, making him sneeze with a feather, skiing naked over him, climbing a tower using his hair, peeing in his shoe, and raining money on him from a plane. Oona’s fantasies are highly unconventional, but they give vent to the irrationality of teenage sexual desire. Her absurdist pursuit of Grover bears some resemblance to the slapstick quest in Milt Gross’s He Done Her Wrong (as does the security guard’s pursuit of Oona through the city): brisk and wordless, both sequences give a sketch of the action rather than detailing it.
Davidson is adept at wordless sequences. (It’s worth saying that her dialogue is terrific and very funny, and both her teen-speak and the faux-formal speech that frequently characterizes the fantasy sequences are convincing.) One of the book’s best and most intriguing chapters is “Battle for the Atoll,” a twenty-six-page silent history of a lost civilization of women warriors. Their progenitor is an alien who crash-landed on an island in the Indian Ocean. The only survivor, she lays eggs from which hatch fully-grown women, who, naturally, develop a matriarchal culture. Meanwhile, a European king, dreaming of tropical conquest, sends men across the ocean to plunder on his behalf. The women easily repel the invasion, but the men, driven by self-regard, return with guns and a large, lion-shaped cannon (an engineering marvel, it is loaded from the rear). The women are brutally defeated, and the narrative skips ahead several hundred years to Oona and Garf visiting a natural-history museum at which artifacts from the dead civilization are on display. The power these objects once embodied is gone, the notion of a female warrior culture has been reduced to a diorama, and Oona and Garf sneak out of the exhibition to have a smoke.
It’s not clear whether Davidson intends this chapter to be a metaphor for the limitations imposed on women in contemporary culture (and perhaps, too, the way that some women choose not to question those limitations), but the chapter poses an apropos what-if within the context of Oona’s and Garf’s exploration, however unconscious, of what it means to be female. More broadly, it’s interesting to imagine how our perceptions of gender might have been different had we such a civilization to invoke and build upon.
It’s the kind of scenario Jack Kirby might have written a story around; his Female Furies are perhaps one possible outcome. They provide a kind of corollary to Davidson’s female characters—here and in Band for Life, her entertaining online series for Vice. Davidson’s don’t physically resemble Kirby’s figures—where his are architectural and robust, hers are slim and buoyant, her lines gestural—so much as share their unflagging energy. This comes partly from Kirby’s and Davidson’s storytelling—far-out plots and emotional intensity—and partly from the kinetic way the characters are drawn: bodies tensed, leaping and running at odd moments. But Davidson’s women—particularly, but not exclusively, in “Battle for the Atoll”—also share with Kirby’s Furies a tough, resourceful, self-reliance; they are women who derive strength from each other, no matter how much they might argue with one another. The costumes and female-warrior character designs Davidson posts on her blog are every bit as otherwordly and radical as, say, Kirby’s costume designs for Julius Caesar. Her stories, too, dip into a kind of mythmaking. In one of Oola’s classes, the teacher describes primeval man as a round creature who could walk backward and forward and roll along. “The sexes were three,” he explains, “because the sun, the moon and the earth are three.” The next six panels are given over to baroque, abstract renderings of cosmic sexuality. “Terrible was their might and strength,” the teacher continues, “and the thoughts in their hearts were great and they decided to wage an attack on the gods.” In Oona’s fevered imagination, however, the epic battle that ensues is more farcical than biblical, with Zeus and Apollo (the latter dressed like a magician) squabbling like teenagers. Here, one thinks of Lauren Weinstein’s Goddess of War, which uniquely blends history, mythology, science fiction, and humor in an outsize tale about a bored Valkyrie.
For all its fractured fairy tales, School Spirits maintains a connection with reality. Davidson has said that School Spirits isn’t autobiographical but that her characters act as her surrogates. Of his boy hero, Hergé said, “Tintin is myself … Tintin has accomplished many things on my behalf.” If Oona is a fractured Tintin—a hotheaded, lustful, tenacious adventuress—then Davidson is in good stead.