Gender politics is not a new topic of exploration in sequential art. There are comics that are overtly outspoken in their feminism, like Bitch Planet. There are graphic novels that explore gender as an intersecting aspect of a person’s journey, like in Sabba Khan’s The Roles We Play. Then you have graphic novels that depict two gal pals who send pictures of their poop on WhatsApp. Jenny Robins’ Biscuits (Assorted) is the latter and it makes for a spicier, fulfilling read.
Biscuits follows the lives of a handful of contemporary women over one summer in London. Each woman’s story, divided into short chapters of a few pages, is interwoven with the others, creating an expansive, detailed tapestry of womanhood in a big city. Some characters have more time and developed stories. Such characters include Sarah, a mother who distracts herself from her cancer by taking statistics of public playgrounds with her daughter; Maya, who only appears as one of those people who have candid phone calls on public transportation; and Clara, a cynic struggling to find a date and live with Helena, her pregnant best friend and former(?) crush. Then you have one-time or sporadically appearing characters, like Rosa and Danni, the aforementioned scat sharers. These slice-of-life vignettes are hilarious individually, capturing the ridiculousness of simply being. They ultimately culminate in August with our characters in a different place (physically or mentally) than they were in June. Biscuits ends with a satisfying sense of progression. The reader is left knowing the characters will continue to walk, ride, laugh, cry, fear, and carry on.
For those who may not know, “Biscuits” is British English for “cookies” (the dessert). That said, Biscuits is a very British story. Not only are Robins and publisher Myriad Editions based in England, but London is also a central character. London-specific locales like the West End, Trafalgar Square, and double-decker buses are recurring backdrops. More than just window-dressing, the Britishisms extend beyond the visual to include words, a certain “taking the piss” humor, and even specific actions. (Any intrepid UK visitors would do well to read and reread page 178 where Piotr gives a solid rundown of the do’s and don’ts that his coworker/London living trainee, Hana, has taught him). These Britishisms do nothing to make Biscuits inaccessible: any non-Brit will be able to follow along.
If anything, the strong presence of location allows for the great narrative potential that Robins taps. London allows for individuals from wildly different backgrounds to coexist in ways that we take for granted in real life. The characters’ diverse identities (different races/ethnic groups, religions, sexual and gender orientations, and ages abound) is one. It was fun seeing how and when certain characters would share a space. Marissa and coworker Keerthika cater at an event where Clara is on a blind date with Hana. Sarah and Helena are both admitted to the hospital at the same time, allowing Clara to meet Sarah’s daughter at a vending machine (and for the reader to see Maya’s phone participant in the background). Every encounter, far from feeling contrived, was unique and fun to experience. Part of the romance of cities comes from the possible encounters and people one can meet there. London is the perfect stage for any and all of Biscuits’ heroines. That said, a city is not the only thing these characters share.
“Biscuits” is used here as a metaphor for “woman”. The cookie-cutter symbol for “woman,” ever-present on restroom doors, is a recurring visual. Each vignette features the character interacting with the symbol — hiding behind it, coming through it, peeking from it, lounging against it, and more. The symbolism is apparent: all of these characters are women, but they are individuals, not generic commodities. This symbolism is reinforced by the artwork. This is Robins’ first published graphic novel, but she has created a number of self-made comics and zines, and it shows. With its black-and-white color palette, hand-drawn linework, varying and sometimes surreal page layouts, and abundance of detailing, Biscuits is drawn in a way that looks tangible and intimate. Every character and setting are drawn so realistically that one will not confuse one character for another. With all of the storylines, I occasionally forgot a character’s name, but I never forgot their face.
This style is never unconsciously overwhelming or illegible — the page layout is well-planned so as to avoid that. Instead, the art reinforces the belief that this is not a comic about women as much as a comic with women (assorted ones, at that). This message is strong but the story does not pontificate. Nevertheless, there are a number of profound moments for those looking for a lighthouse. For me, Jess’ introduction monologue at the burlesque house where she works (“Biscuits Burlesque” — cheeky) touched me in an unexpected, perhaps unintended way. So, too, was the middle panel of the bottom tier on page 162, where chatty, brazen Maya has her own speech bubble covering her face as she says, “You’ve got to know what you stand for in this world.” I found that there were scenes and moments that allowed me to analyze my own gendered experience, but they never felt mandatory: just places to rest if I wanted them. Biscuits says a lot more about gender and the gendered experience by showing without interpreting. I, as the reader, am all the happier for it.
Biscuits (Assorted) is the kind of graphic novel you want to share with the girls: to laugh at the funny scenarios like TikToks and hear their thoughts on the more layered ones (and silently compare notes to make sure you aren’t the weirdo). With its clever humor and visual charm, Biscuits is the right combination of playful and earthy. This is Jenny Robins’ first graphic novel, and she has displayed a mature, engaging voice that is all her own. I am excited to see what other treats Robins has in her tin box.
Published by Myriad Editions, Biscuits (Assorted) is available now.