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Back in November there was a stirring in the interwebs when James Sturm posted a one page comic called “The Sponsor” that dealt with issues of jealousy and competition amongst cartoonists. There was quite a hubbub of response, with many different interpretations held out. Ken Parille offered fourteen versions all by himself. While I saw the comic as directly addressing the topics I mentioned above, others saw it as more of male cartoonists showing fear and anxiety over the success of female cartoonists.

Well now The Nib has posted the WHOLE DAMN COMICS under the titleThe Second Mouse Gets The Cheese and there’s even more to chew on!

Just as a reminder, the first comic featured three characters, only two of them seen: Alan, an older male cartoonist; Casey a younger male up and coming cartoonist, and the unseen Tessa, a female cartoonist who is experiencing a success (via her true talent) that nether Casey or Alan have known. Casey’s jealousy of Tessa’s success is mainly the subject of the strip, but is this jealousy just about gender?

In the remainder of the story we see that Casey is pretty much a whiny, self-centered asshole no matter what he’s doing; his relationship with his estranged wife and kids show that he’s not much of a family man; and his final job, making corporate reports as a “Narrative architect” is far from the lasting success that Tessa has achieved with her classic graphic novel “The Second Mouse Gets The Cheese” –a book that shows the first mouse dead in the mouse trap just in case you didn’t get the title.

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Casey’s ongoing problems with the women in his life do reaffirm that perhaps it’s Tessa’s gender that rubbed the salt in the wounds of his own inadequacy. But I still don’t think that Tessa being a woman is some sort of code for how female cartoonists have been put down over the years. As I mentioned back when The Sponsor first appeared, it’s more of a reflection of the real world where the majority of the best and most successful new cartoonists are women.

Back when The SPonsor came out I toyed with making a chart showing all the possible iterations of the story viewed through gender. In other words, what if ALAN was a woman, and Tessa was a guy? What would the subtext say?

WELL, it seems the time has come to finally run that chart! Remember:

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Alan: older, marginally successful but insecure cartoonist who serves as mentor to

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Casey: young but insecure cartoonist who doubts his talent

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Tessa: A true genius of cartooning whose raw talent Casey and Alan cannot touch

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Now let’s throw in a hypothetical older woman cartoonist and

We’re off!

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When The Sponsor first came out, Sarah Horrocks argued that viewing this comic without using the lens of gender was impossible:

The central crisis at the core of this story is white males inability to cope with a woman who is more successful than them in their field.  That is literally what is in the text.  You can’t BRING a gendered reading to the text, because the text IS gendered.  What we see people like Soto and MacDonald doing is actually REMOVING gender from the comic so that it fits their needs as a reader.  And the problem there becomes very obvious, because once you remove gender from the comic, you lose out on the absurdity of the idea of this network of men and their worries about successful women.  You end up with a comic about artistic jealousy that “only cartoonists get”.


I get that there is a gender subtext, but must the presence of a female character in a story mean that the story is ALWAYS about gender? Isn’t that the problem? The constant baggage of representing half (more or less) of the human race thrown upon one person’s actions no matter how independent they are?

The subsequent pages of the “Second Mouse” do make the story much clearer — it’s about Casey’s failures, some of them brought on by pursuing the “exalted” life of the cartoonist without having the talent to do so—a life he abandons for dollars somewhere along the way. I don’t think the main story would be much different if you swapped the genders of any of the characters, although the subtext would be different.

I realize that for some people, gender is the most important aspect of any story, and it sometimes is for me, especially when it gets messed up. But once in a while, it would be nice to just tell stories about….people.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve been writing comics as I regularly would in the last year (vanilla straight white male), then trying to randomly switch genders/race and the such for the sake of narrative purity. Homosexuality is the boundary I haven’t crossed, but because I haven’t got to it yet. I read “The Man In The High Castle,” in college (and twice since then), and there is a validity to letting to the I Ching write the story. Roll the dice, and let the characters be as they may. The variety will let itself appear, without becoming a political statement. But I suppose letting variety appear rather than simply indulging in your own interests is a political statement in itself.

  2. While I don’t think the gag in the original strip was meant to be about gender, I can understand why some read it that way. It’s a symptom of the imbalance in representation across all forms of popular media. If the unseen successful cartoonist was a black male we’d wonder if the commentary was about Alan and Casey feeling threatened about visible minorities encroaching on a traditionally white sphere. Far too often stories include just one female or minority character, who then exists as a stand-in for all women/minorities, a symbol rather than a person.

    The solution, in the long term, is to increase the diversity of representation. In the short term, the unfortunate reality is that the only way the original gag (jealousy is toxic and funny) could work smoothly is with three men, as the chart suggests, because we read “white male” as “neutral” or “default.”

  3. Def, crossing sexual-orientation boundaries in your writing should be fairly easy. LGBT people grow up in the same homes and neighborhoods as corresponding straight people, so the overlap between one and the other is even bigger than between races or ethnicities. Likewise, a man who can write straight female characters ought to be able to get a handle on a male character who’s attracted to men. The one thing that would probably pose a challenge is the outsider aspect, which is something that even a gay white man has, but that a straight white man or even a straight white woman doesn’t necessarily know from experience.

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