As a musician, writer, filmmaker, and artist, Vivek Shraya has been lauded for her versatile creative output that addresses LGBTQ issues and has been embraced by that community. Her work, which includes poetry and children’s books, has also made her a voice against racism, and through her activism, academic career, and publishing efforts has become not only an advocate for the marginalized but someone who has worked to offer direct opportunities to those communities. After well over a decade of a packed and admirable career, Shraya made an official announcement in 2016, coming out as transgender. Any thinking, caring person would applaud her solid efforts and her bravery in coming forth, and judging from the success of her work, my guess is that many people reacted that way.
No surprise, though, this being the 21st Century, there were others who acted with rage and threats of violence, one person in particular, and in Death Threat, Shraya teams with Ness Lee to chronicle her experience in this one-sided, disturbing correspondence.
In some ways structured like a conversation, even though no one is having a conversation in the slightest, since part of the book takes on the form of Shraya’s dialogues to her harasser, with Lee’s artwork portraying imagined scenarios, displaying an admirable candor and sense of humor considering the circumstances. These alternate with sections of the harasser’s letters, a back and forth that is created for the book in order to portray the real building terror of what Shraya faced.
Anyone who has received threats of violence from strangers should be able to understand what Shraya is feeling — I’m one of those and I certainly do, even if it wasn’t for the same reason — but in sharing the words of her harasser, there is something far more threatening about his words than the direct rage I encountered. Shraya’s harasser is confusing in his vagueness, sinister in his professed affection, chilling in his familiarity, and the terror he brings stems partly from the mysteries he creates in Shraya’s mind, mysteries she goes over and over in order to get to the bottom of something that may not be attainable.
For the most part, Shraya takes an abstract approach to this story, employing small nuggets of text that embrace a poetic delivery thanks to their spareness and the visual flights provided by Lee’s graphic-focused illustration. These partly express the reality of the moments and also renders the psychology of those same moments in surreal flourishes that heighten emotions. This places the events down on the page more in the freeform way they certainly must have unfolded in reality.
Without any restricting structure, you are taken on the same journey as Shraya herself, and it’s not necessarily a fun one to be on, but Shraya brings to it her own meditation on the experience and an affability despite the fear that both work to protect you rather than victimize you along with her, and that’s an honorable way to express personal moments of vulnerability to people you don’t know after such an experience.
Subtitled “Comics & Diary Comics,” Summer Pierre gives you exactly what she promises in Paper Pencil Life #6. On one hand, yes, these are diary comics, and you will learn about her distracted ennui and general confusion about what to do with herself following the completion of a book, which includes some phone calls, some reading, and some staring out the window.
Coming off her book coincided with winter, a time of slowness here in the northeast, and coming off the intensity of a project, even that can seem like a jolt. That gives her Pierre the time to indulge beyond the minutiae of her life, even as she consciously inhabits it. This means rendering it in comics, but getting out of the process of putting it down something beyond the surface of the moment, which means her encounter with the starlings outside her window or a silent walk at the river turns into something reaching beyond the everyday. It links the creative effort of bookwork with her ordinary life and shows how each can co-exist.
As the weather brightens, Pierre’s approach to life and comics echoes that change, still working together for the same purpose, but also allowing Pierre to drink up the town she lives in and lets the reader share her enthusiasm and sense of discovery. This gives her the opportunity to not only visit cool stores or diners, but also pass on a little comics history, personal lore, regional natural history and, of course, thoughts about music, which is something at the center of Pierre’s emotional universe and a frequent topic of her cartooning. She also spends some time going over the life of Sylvia Plath, finding not the despair of it but the inspiration.
It’s “Wondering Season” that brings everything in Paper Pencil Life #6 together, and functions as an engaging manifesto laying out Pierre’s approach to life and creativity, chronicling the unexpected things that send her curiosity soaring and which send her on paths of investigation that can change aspects of her life. It’s a lovely piece that sits right at the physical center of this collection as well as at the emotional center, speaking to Pierre’s impressive versatility as both a writer and an illustrator, as well her ability to bring meaning to ordinary moments.
Last year, Pierre’s book All the Sad Songs gave a more in-depth autobiography built around the subject of music. But the works collected here speak to a different kind of depth and while music plays a crucial role in framing the experiences related here, the lack of theme allows her to widen the revelations about where she draws her influences and inspiration, and it all comes together with the same sort of scattered loveliness that human beings are best at.