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Fleen Book Corner: The Fire Never Goes Out

The news continues apace, so let’s get that out of the way.

  • TCAF pulled the plug today, so there will be no show in 2020. Anticipating questions about postponement, the organizers noted the extreme uncertainty about when travel and crowd guidances will be lifted, and the fact that it would take about five months to make everything start up again from a pause. As noted in their statement, the cancellation was the only ethical path left open to them.
  • But on the plus side, nerdpop siblings Aubrey Turner and Laser Malena-Webber (aka The Doubleclicks) are offering up some sunshine and distraction — they’ve got a new album they’re Kickstarting, and it’s a musical. Desribed as Little Shop Of Horrors meets R2-D2, Teaching A Robot To Love sounds like both the most Doubleclicks thing ever, and a sore needed balm. Cabin fever (and I once shared a cabin with both of them at Comics Camp) is best fought with a cello, a ukulele, and a keyboard that goes meow meow meow.
  • Noelle Stevenson has been very damn busy for her entire career. Nimona’s movie adaptation may or may not be a casualty of the Disney/Fox acquisition and/or COVID-19 disrupting production on everything, but the book is still over there on your bookshelf¹ and she’s still a National Book Award nominee because of it. Not just a National Book Award nominee, but the third in history for graphic work, and the youngest nominee in the history of the awards.

    And a stack of Eisners and Harveys. And the ongoing success of Lumberjanes, which she co-created. And acclaim she’s gotten for the reboot of She-Ra. That’s a damn lot ask of somebody, going from groundbreaking success to groundbreakinger success without a pause. It would lead in anybody to a fear of failure, or even standing still. In those terms, it’s kind of easy to see why so many child stars turn out so badly, and why the best child star outcome of all time is probably Peter Ostrum².

    The danger of tying yourself to your successes is a recurring theme in The Fire Never Goes Out: A Memoir In Pictures, Stevenson’s new memoir (consisting of existing cartoons and illustrations and year-end summaries from social media, some expanded), a diary of sorts covering the years 2011 to 2019; being born on 31 December, the end of the calendar year is a natural time of reflection for Stevenson. She grows from a teenager unsure of her sexuality to a Hollywood showrunner married to the love of her life, but many — oh, so many — of the drawings she does of herself over that time feature a literal hole in the middle of her body or burning flames threatening to consume her or diamondlike crystal erupting from her heart to protect her.

    The end of the book clearly states that Stevenson avoided proper care for herself and her mental health for a long time, and that proper psychiatric care and medication have made a tremendous improvement — her flame is now gentle and warming — but the message I found is that in addition to mental health, Stevenson’s journey also must be read as an indictment of how we (I’m talking society here) treat young women.

    It starts early in the book with a discussion of female bodies, and the ones you see in public and the ones you don’t; it’s art school and figure drawing and being exposed to naked bodies of all sizes and shapes — none like the fashion models placed before us — and all of them being beautiful³ that’s the first hint. Those few pages, that corner turned in Stevenson’s mind reminded me so very much of the painful and necessary Unhealthy by Abby Howard and Sarah Winifred Searle.

    I thought about how Howard and Searle each went undiagnosed with mental illness because doctors didn’t consider them as having anything more important than unacceptable bodies. Stevenson, during art school, tells her mother she thinks she might be bipolar but is dismissed. There’s nothing wrong with you except you _____ is the message young women (and before that, girls) get from nearly everywhere. Except you

      don’t have the right clothes
          don’t have the right makeup
              aren’t sexy enough
                  like the wrong right things
                      are too sexy
                          are dumb
                              are too smart

    The impossibility of conforming to an unachievable ideal leads to actual problems being dismissed. Later, running a show and trying to do everything herself and take care of everybody and make it all perfect and if she makes a mistake it’ll be her fault and they’ll be right she’s a fraud agh I just need to try harder Stevenson is on the verge of falling into the third trap laid for young women (and girls, and women no longer young): that of the difficult woman, who
      can’t take the pressure
          can’t take a joke
              should be nicer
                  should be tougher
                      is too angry
                          is too weak
                              isn’t cut out for being in charge

    It’s a societal mindset that doesn’t let girls, young women, no longer young women (who also are now useless because they aren’t hot anymore) fail, learn, pick up, and go on again. Stevenson finally sees it for what it is4:

    here’s what they don’t tell you about climbing mountains
    almost everyone who dies dies on the way down.

    the summit, as much as you want it, is only the halfway point.

    and night will be here soon, and there will be no way to go but down, and you will be so tired.

    It’s something we need to teach everybody, but especially girls, young women, women who are no longer young. Stevenson came to the realization at a breaking point:

    you have broken but you will not stay broken.

    It turns out there can be freedom in the falling, and strength in the breaking.

    And finally … I sought out help.

    It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to not be able to do everything yourself. Partnerships and collectives are stronger than any individual. It’s what we need to tell girls, and young women, and women who are no longer young and boys to keep them from absorbing the toxic aspects that have been accepted as gender roles forever.

    You needn’t be diamond-hard to protect yourself. You can be A SHARK AAHHH, but remember how Nimona ends (uhh, spoiler): You don’t have to be alone; asking for help is better. As a young woman, Stevenson knew that, but it took time to sink in. By sharing her experience, maybe others won’t have journeys that are as bumpy.

    The Fire Never Goes Out released on 3 March, and is available in bookstores everywhere. Read it, and put it in front of everybody you know.

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¹ At least it should be; it’s great. True story, I spend a lot of time proselytizing comics and graphic novels to people I know. One night on EMS duty a couple of years ago the new guy on the crew sat down in the lounge with the rest of us and pulled out a book to read and it was Nimona. He’s not a comic guy, he didn’t jump from there to other comics, but something about it caught his eye at the library and he was hooked. Stevenson’s work has that effect on people who aren’t comic people.

² Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, which remains his sole acting credit. He declined an offer of a three-movie contract so that he would have the freedom to choose roles, and decided he didn’t like acting as much as he liked horses. He became and remains to this day a veterinarian.

³ I find it utterly unsurprising that the Princesses Of Power on the new She-Ra are varied in body shape, and that screaming man-children have decided that She-Ra and the other princesses no longer being conventionally sexy on a show for children is the worst insult they could have received in their lives. I really hate screaming man-children.

4 Note that these quotes come partly from illustration captions, and partly from the accompanying text; the captions do not feature capitals at the starts of sentences or complete punctuation. I’ve tried to preserve the original presentation as much as possible.

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