The Nexus Files: Gay Comics NOT Starring Northstar Pt.3: How Loathsome

How Loathsome is the infamous, brilliant and provocative queer-comic by Ted Naifeh and Tristan Crane. Set in the San Francisco, its an ‘autobiographical’ tale of Catherine Gore’s life as she and her friends explore and push their sexualities amid a chaotic backdrop of drink, drugs and…well…life. It’s an arresting and thematically challenging book that’s also a terrific story. Join me Will Cooling as in the third part of my series on queer comics I look at the enigmatic mystery of How Loathsome.

Just The Two Of Us

How Loathsome is the work of just two people, Ted Naifeh and Tristan Crane. Such is the closeness of their collaboration that when it was first published in singles they didn’t categorise their roles beyond ‘creator’. When talking to Sequential Tart, Crane explained that this was because they felt that “it is so entirely both of our creation” with both of them playing a large role in every aspect of the comic. For example whilst Naifeh drew the story, Crane did layouts and other design work, including lettering. Where the collaboration was strongest was with the writing, talking to broken frontier Naifeh explained how they shared writing chores;

“The method was this: we’d both write chapters, and then trade them to clean up or finish them. Sometimes there would be a line or scene we wouldn’t agree on. He wouldn’t like my idea and I’d dislike his. This happened numerous times. In those cases, we resolved the dilemma by scrapping both ideas and coming up with something that we could agree on. Nine times out of ten, we both preferred the new idea to either of our old ones.”

The reason for the closeness of the collaboration was simple; it was what was needed to get the book to work. When talking to Naifeh explained that when he was trying to write How Loathsome by his lonesome (sorry couldn’t resist) it wasn’t beyond his abilities. Determined to bring life to How Loathsome he approached his friend, Crane “who has read a lot more of this sort of this sort of thing than I” to co-create it with him. Such was the success of their collaboration that Naifeh believes the book is superior to anything they could’ve done individually.

A San Francisco Night

We’re living in a time where gay and lesbian culture is finally making it to the mainstream. Okay, the results aren’t always impressive or particularly true but the flaccid gays of ‘Will and Grace’ and the lipstick lesbians of ‘The L Word’ are an improvement over the hatred and ridicule that was previously synonymous with mainstream portrayals of the gays (although to be honest Will and Grace isn’t that much an improvement). However, even such limited progress has not been made in the portrayal of trans-issues, as even today they are ignored, ridiculed and/or hated. How Loathsome is a bold attempt to address this, trying to shed some light onto a world that is rarely seen, even within the gay community. Naifeh explained that deep down “It’s basically about being a weirdo, an outsider, and having to find one’s own way through the world because the normal, accepted ways of living don’t work” and this is encapsulated by Catherine Gore, our protagonist and narrator.

Catherine Gore is an unusual mixture between the open-minded and the disaffected. She’s sarcastic and at times cynical, something that shines through her brilliantly written narration, which has real wit and insight, for example when talking about her time in a lesbian community she says “I learned that being a lesbian wasn’t about f*cking girls, but eating macrobiotics and wearing overalls”. And she always portrays herself as being, if not a loner, then at least detached from all but a handful of friends with the opening lines of the series showing a boredom with the very scenes she considers home. However that isn’t the entirety of her personality at all, there is an open-mindedness to her that is quite at odds to her cynical disaffected side. During the course of How Loathsome we see Catherine do many, many things but the one thing we never see her do is say ‘no’. She never refuses to try something, never turns down an opportunity to push the boundaries of her experience. This dichotomy at the heart of her makes her such a captivating character, as she has the caustic wit without quite having the caustic heart.

However, the question remains, is the story surrounding Catherine and her friends’ lives as interesting as her?

The Review

How Loathsome is a faux autobiographical tale, with the four chapters being short stories in their own right, although they all interlink, with all the central characters introduced in the first three chapters returning for the fourth and final chapter. The underlying theme is one of sexual identity, with all the characters being put into positions where their preconceived notions of what’s attractive or desirous are challenged. Sometimes we see characters experiment and go beyond their ‘type’ and sometimes we see characters realize fantasies only to realise they weren’t as fantastic as they’d assumed.

The writing throughout is excellent, with Naifeh and Crane fully developing all their characters with a verve and wit that few comics can match. Together Naifeh and Crane manage to look at a whole range of issues and situations where even the most outlandish are completely believable. Indeed, that is probably the most impressive aspect of the writing, the sense of realism it exudes. The stories they tell aren’t mundane or everyday, but the writers are skilled enough to make every character believable. The single thing that most contributes to this is their superb ear for dialogue, with all the characters having a distinctive and believable way of speaking. This is above all true of Catherine, whose narration is so vivid and so well developed that you are almost convinced she is a ‘real’ person upon whom the comic is based.

The writers manage to strike a balance between the cool/destructive (delete as applicable) elements of Catherine and her friends’ lifestyle with a real sensitivity and tenderness. Perhaps this is best illustrated by Chloe, a male-to-female transsexual. She is introduced in chapter one, as a love interest for Catherine, their doomed love affair giving us a glimpse to the fact that Catherine’s tough front is just that, a front. However, it’s in chapter four, where Chloe is preparing to perform, that she really excels with both the self-doubt and the self-confidence that comes from being the ‘gay community’s queers’ beautifully expressed. Some of the scenes in chapter four are some of the best and most moving pieces of queer-literature ever written.

A key to the overall success of How Loathsome is the wonderful artwork of Ted Naifeh. His angular, stylised artwork manages to combine a minimalist design ethic with an uncluttered eye for detail. His characterisation is excellent, with his facial characterisation never once being anything less than terrific, even when the face is just a few scratchily drawn lines. A prime example of this is the look on the faces of Catherine, Ashley and Aaron at the moment of truth, with their stark self-realisation being depicted perfectly in just two panels. What’s more, his character designs are perfect, as he manages to strike a balance between making his characters visually exciting and sexy and keeping them believable and at least grounded in reality. Another intriguing element of the artwork is the way that Naifeh manipulates his style to reflect the state of mind of the narrator, so for example when Catherine is in the middle of an acid trip the artwork becomes incredibly loose, whilst when Nick is recounting a particularly bad trip the art becomes as outlandish and visually disturbed as anything I’ve seen. Perhaps the most visually arresting thing about the artwork though is the colour scheme, with its bold and vivid mixture of bronze, black and white making it look quite unlike any comic you’ve ever seen. And of course there are all sorts of metaphors you can read into the colour scheme, my favourite being that the use of black and white as shades of grey shows the absence of conventional dualist morality whilst the bronze is the vein of truth that exists in a seemingly amoral world. Whatever the meaning of the colour scheme (assuming one exists), there’s no doubt it looks amazing, and with the dynamic layouts and thoughtful lettering of Crane this is a superbly designed comic.

Unusual for American writers, particularly ‘mature readers comix’, these writers are actually quite concise and to the point when it comes to writing. No scene drags or over stays its welcome, and every single page propels the story forward. For a story that wants to (and does) say some pretty big things, it never gets sucked into the morass of depicting a group of characters sitting down and just talking endlessly. At all times there is a restlessness to this comic, with the writers always striving to keep the story interesting and engaging. The fruits of the close cooperation on all elements of the comic can be seen here, with the writing not being sacrificed for the sake of the art and art not being consumed by the writing. Both are brought together, in an almost perfect synergy that is the very definition of the medium.

Stories within a Story

An interesting element of How Loathsome is the two stories supposedly authored by Catherine that are contained in chapter one and chapter two. Both stories are to do with the themes of identity and longing dealt with in the main story. The first story is ‘The Wood’, which is a gothic tale about the close relationship between two sisters and their father. The second story is ‘Nanshoku’, and is a haunting tale about a Monk and a long lost love. Both stories are interesting reads in there own right, with Naifeh making an impressive effort to give both stories an artistic style distinctive to the main story. What is interesting is how the two stories relate to the overall narrative, with both stories being concerned with the very thing that seems to be lacking in the main characters’ lives, fate.

A Simple Message

There is a big message to How Loathsome. Beneath the make up, the leather, the drugs, the booze and even the sex there is a simple reaction of labels. The creators constantly show that nobody is just a queer, or just a drug user or just a tranny, but that everyone is more than one personality trait, more than a label either they give themselves or someone imposes on them. This rejection of labels is, as so much about How Loathsome encapsulated by Catherine, who as Naifeh explained to is gender-queer, rejecting both male and female and so “seeks some neutral ground between the two”. The stories contained in How Loathsome show the various characters fighting not so much society’s prejudices but their own ingrained prejudices in an effort to be happy. A belief perfectly summed up by Catherine’s closing line “”There is only finding joy where you can, with whom you can”.

As gaycomicslist says “How Loathsome is everything self-righteous people are afraid of”. However, this isn’t because of the casual drug use or the promiscuous sex or even the heavy drinking. The reason self-righteous people everywhere would be afraid of How Loathsome is that it speaks a bold, simple truth of loving people for who they are not some dumb category. How Loathsome is more than just a sexy piece of queer-literature, it’s a modern parable for open-mindedness and self-realisation.

It’s also a terrific, must read comic.