First-love stories are often as full of bashfulness, blunders and heartbreak as they are of romance, lust and joy. Diane Obomsawin's new comic book, On Loving Women, is a charming and moving collection of 11 lesbian coming-out stories, including her own and those of her friends and lovers.
The storytellers are adult lesbians looking back at their emerging adolescent sexualities. Obomsawin captures both the comedy and the catastrophe of their memories of first crushes and coming-outs. She illustrates this bittersweet collection beautifully in a deceptively naive drawing style, paired with confessional narration that allows the adult women to describe the scenes in the panels.
Obomsawin is a highly regarded artist, illustrator and animator who works in French, often under the pseudonym "Obom." Of Abenaki descent, she was born in Montreal in 1959 and moved with her family to France, where she spent her first 20 years. Trained as a graphic designer, she has lived in Canada since 1983 and produced animated shorts for the National Film Board.
Her first comic book to be translated into English, Kaspar (about 19th century "wild child" Kaspar Hauser), was also adapted into a NFB film. Her animation shares with her comic books a spare, minimal style to convey intimate emotional experiences and to transform harsh realities into poetic poignancies.
On Loving Women is divided into 11 chapters, each titled with a woman's name -- Maxime's Story, Diane's Story, and so forth. The stories share some similarities -- unrequited schoolgirl crushes on friends, friends' older sisters and female teachers are recurring themes. Likewise, the heady thrills of first love and the tragic depths of first rejections are a common thread. Some of the women experiment with male sexual partners and female threesomes -- the content is definitely geared to mature readers.
This might not be initially evident from the drawings, as Obomsawin's characters are anthropomorphic: she places animal heads on elongated human bodies. Stylistically, she is on similar terrain to Matt Groening's Life in Hell comic strips. Her people have faces that belong vaguely to cows, dogs, bears, rabbits and so on. Yet everything else about them is human, including their naked bodies wrapped in loving embraces.
Obomsawin's dual French and Quebec backgrounds are evident in the settings of the stories: convent schools, village scenes and urban gay bars all register that we are in francophone locales where Catholicism and the traditional nuclear family are being confronted by feminism, LGBT rights and youth culture. Helge Daschers' translation of the text is fluid and idiomatic, so that it is only through the visuals that we may recognize the cultural and geographic setting as distinctly French.
At the same time, Obomsawin's style reminds us that this is not realism, that each woman's testimonial of her adolescent sexuality is being imagined by the artist in her own signature style. This is a true collaboration, then, between words and images and narrators and artist.
On Loving Women is a real treat for readers of every sexual orientation and it will undoubtedly become a touchstone of queer comics and Canadian graphic non-fiction.
Candida Rifkind teaches Canadian literature and graphic narratives in the English department of the University of Winnipeg.