In an era when representation has become an almost obligatory subject in any discussion about any art form, one objection that gets raised when critics weigh in on a story that isn’t written by or targeted at their specific race, age, gender identity, or sexual preference is expressed thusly: “It isn’t for you.”
Fair enough. Not everything is for everybody. And for far too long, the domination of conversations by mostly white, mostly male, mostly cisgender, and mostly heterosexual critics was taken as the normal state of affairs, just as was the invisibility of characters from outside those definitions in the art itself. If we are undergoing a reckoning, it’s one that’s a long time coming, and that we (my ‘we’ is that of a cis white male) brought on ourselves with decades, even centuries, of exclusion, intentional or otherwise. We can rightly lay a lot of the sins of our current time on the internet, but one unimpeachably positive effect it’s had is that of giving voice to the voiceless, and of allowing people who want to tell stories that weren’t often told before to do so. Not only that, but those stories can now be funded and publicized through a medium that speaks directly to their target audience, and for critics representing their peers to have conversations about their meaning.
Nothing comes without cost in the internet era, though, and representation, however positive its value on its face, has been accompanied by some unintended consequences. One is the slow but steady degradation of the concept of ‘universality’, of the notion that great art is able to speak to everyone everywhere regardless of their conception of self-identity. We can lose that without tremendous gnashing of teeth, I think; art that is truly universal has always been precious and rare, and for the most part, the idea has been invoked as a dodge to protect the narrow interests of a cultural elite that served specific class, race, and gender constituencies. Much more specifically, though, we have lost the idea of criticism as a professional class.
In a lot of ways, that’s okay; professional criticism, by design or by accident, has always had an element of gatekeeping to it, and often served to exclude voices that badly needed to be heard. But now, when literally everyone’s a critic, there have been predictable results: the quality of criticism has plummeted, the role of the critic as an artist has diminished to the point of mockery, algorithms have replaced irreplaceable human qualities with data points that serve only commerce, and criticism has gone from dangerous uniformity to dangerous balkanization.
What does all this have to do with Bingo Love, a charming and wonderfully intended but seriously flawed graphic novel released this month by Image? More than you might think. Funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, aimed at a pre-teen audience, and released as part of the company’s intention to feature more diverse creators and subjects, it tells the story of Hazel Johnson and Mari McCray, a pair of African-American women who meet as adolescents and fall in love. Facing the disapproval of their religious families, they’re forcibly separated and spend the next fifty years building lives and families of their own; eventually, however, they’re reunited late in life and get a second chance at happiness.
It’s a very sweet story, and it’s told with a certain degree of charm and flair. And unquestionably, it’s the kind of story we need to see, especially in comics, where there’s a dearth of anything but lunkheaded superhero variants from companies like Image, let alone stories that center older queer women of color. It was produced outside of traditional venues of publishing, and it showcases creators who don’t normally get this degree of attention. The book’s good intentions are obvious. So…what’s the problem?
There’s a lot of answers to that question. Bingo Love doesn’t seem to know exactly who its audience is; it sometimes seems aimed at kids, sometimes at teens, and sometimes at young adults. The art, by Jenn St-Onge, is in a familiar style that’s all over YA-centered books these days but doesn’t much appeal to me; it’s slick and too cute by half. It's technically proficient and probably works well enough for the target audience, if you assume that they can't be trusted with unconventional choices, but it's literally cartoonish -- meaning that it lends itself only to the broadest and most easily parsable emotions and actions. It's bad at reflecting nuance and subtlety, which the story sometimes requires, and its gloss and generality flatten out all the stylistic elements of time and place that ought instead to be enhanced. It's also a bit flavorless, in a work that ought to be bursting with flavor. It's not that anything about it is objectionable, but rather that it doesn't have anything like the strong individual voice that books like this are supposed to be elevating, and the end effect is like an after-school special. Narratives about stories we've traditionally ignored deserve better than art styles we've seen a million times. To that point, Tee Franklin’s story has a lot of appeal, but it’s tonally off at times, and the pacing seems awfully scattered; there are moments where the payoff is so long in coming that it almost seems like an editorial mistake. And having a major plot point take place entirely outside of the book in an online supplement seems pretty cheap.
A lot of the timing bothers me; much of it takes place in flashback, but parts of it take place in the future, which adds absolutely nothing to the story. It could just as easily have set its flashbacks a little earlier, which would have also allowed it to avoid the pitfalls of having them take place in a weirdly depoliticized version of the civil rights era, and of having all the characters speak like 14-year-olds instead of senior citizens. Finally, for a book that is entirely centered around love and acceptance, there’s a real reluctance to honestly come to terms with the real meaning and consequences of the plot; it sets up a lot of situations and then pulls its punches, reading more like a fairy tale than a real story.
But all of these objections are easily answered by “It’s not for you.” What’s wrong with writing for a wide audience? Who cares if the art doesn’t appeal to someone who’s not part of that audience? Why not build a brand? Why focus on events outside of the personal story it’s trying to tell, or make the dialogue accessible to the people most likely to read it? And don’t they deserve their own fairy tales? All fair questions, and ones that won’t be solved here. There’s a tension rising between shedding our tendency to review things that appeal only to our tastes and accepting without question art that is designed to appeal specifically to our tastes. As a much less reputable comic once asked, “Does existence precede essence, or what?” We can’t expect Bingo Love to answer that question, but we still owe it to ourselves to ask.