Full disclosure: I love Pinky & Pepper Forever so much that I wrote the blurb on the back. It reads:
Pinky and Pepper Forever is full of sincere, beautiful art that practically writhes off the page. Ivy Atoms is a genius; this book made me cry.
— Carta Monir, The Comics Journal.
Well, I’m Carta Monir and this is The Comics Journal, so let’s take some time to really dig into what makes Pinky and Pepper Forever such a perfect book.
At its core, Pinky & Pepper Forever is a love story. The titular characters are gay puppygirls in a rocky, emotional relationship. When Pinky commits suicide as part of a twisted performance art piece, Pepper desperately follows her into the afterlife and their relationship continues in the eternal fires of hell.
If the names Pinky and Pepper sound at all familiar to you, it might be because they were the names of a short-lived line of dolls from a company called The Bridge Direct. Pinkie Carson is a blonde dog with big eyes and long pigtails. Her friend, Pepper Parson is a brown-haired dog with shorter hair. They were invented by Carter Bryant, the creator of Bratz dolls, and the Bratz influence is clear. Unfortunately for The Bridge Direct, Pinkie Cooper was a huge flop. The dolls debuted in 2013, and were discontinued the following year.
Atoms’ choice to use discontinued fashion dolls as the characters in her surrealist lesbian suicide story might seem jarring, but I find it extremely effective. Knowing that these characters are based on mass-produced dolls - one of which makes an explicit appearance in the photographic spread depicting Pinky’s suicide - makes everything seem more real, somehow. It’s hard to explain, but knowing that I can go on eBay and just buy a Pinkie Cooper doll lends a sense of backstory and physicality to Atoms’ characters. Atoms has written about her creative process involving a lot of literal play, using the dolls to act out scenes and then putting those scenes in her book. As someone who puts a lot of emotional investment in certain toys, the idea of projecting hugely personal situations and fears onto these vulnerable dolls makes perfect sense to me. In a sense, Atoms is explicitly inviting us into what’s usually completely off-limits to the outside world: the private thoughts and daydreams a person has while playing.
Ivy Atoms is a cartoonist’s cartoonist, bending space and scale to create interesting and shifting compositions from one panel to the next. Everything is rendered in full color - colored pencil is blended expertly with bright, bright digital tone. Her writing is funny and dark and deeply earnest. These cute characters, repurposed from their purely capitalist origin, to tell a painful and ambitious story about a doomed romance between two traumatized art school lesbians. Do you like gay comics? I hope you do, because this book is gaaaaaayyyyyyyyy. The book’s gayness is an excellent example of “show, don’t tell” storytelling. Rather than explicitly explaining the exact nature of Pinky and Pepper’s relationship, the book gives us enough information to understand that both characters simultaneously care deeply for and also don’t know how not to hurt one another. As a lesbian with lots of lesbian artist friends, the relationship depicted in Pinky & Pepper Forever might be the truest representation of a sad, undergraduate, gay art student relationship I’ve ever seen.
It’s difficult to find points of comparison for a book like this, but I think the closest I could get would be Sally Cruikshank’s early work, like Quasi at the Quackadero. There’s a bouncy, neon, surrealist goofiness in every panel here, and Atoms’ compositions are more cartoony than they are traditionally comic-book-y. Atoms uses an intentionally inconsistent style, varying tone, color, detail, and medium from page to page. She’s unconcerned with conventions like perspective, instead opting for an eclectic, somewhat childish, intuitive drawing style. Atoms can draw, and the choices she makes are smart and deliberate. The best way I can describe it is to say that Atoms prioritizes depicting the emotional state of a scene over its physical or spatial state. The art is expressive and extremely cute, but without sacrificing any level of fidelity or aesthetic quality. It’s just astonishing to me that this could be a young artist’s first serious release. It feels like the kind of thing someone would make at the height of their career.
For a book that deals with such dark and painful themes, Ivy manages to keep an impressively tender and playful tone throughout. Because the characters are so cute, and the writing is so earnest, I found myself at the point of tears several times during my first reading. Ivy understands that magic combination of cute, vulnerable, sad, and funny that just wrecks me. The book is largely told from Pepper’s perspective, since she’s a little more emotionally open than the often aloof Pinky. Pepper’s religious guilt, trauma, masochism, and desperate kindness hit home in a way no other character has for me recently.
Pinky and Pepper Forever is going to inspire a generation of artists. It’s already inspired me. Buy it, read it, and then read it again and again. Share in my appreciation of the success of a genius young artist. And share in my breathless anticipation to see what she makes next.