TIME ZONE J, by Julie Doucet
FLUNG OUT OF SPACE: Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith, by Grace Ellis and Hannah Templer
Goodness gracious: Julie Doucet has a new graphic novel out! This is staggering news. Renowned since the ’90s for the brutally frank, aggressively complex “Dirty Plotte” as well as numerous other books, Doucet quit drawing more than 20 years ago. This long quiet period has, naturally, accorded her a staggering level of prestige in the comics world. Just last month she became the third woman ever awarded the Grand Prix lifetime achievement award at the distinguished Angoulême International Comics Festival.
Not surprisingly, her new work, TIME ZONE J (Drawn & Quarterly, 144 pp., $29.95), is about memory — specifically, a particular cluster of memories from back when she was still making comics. She digs up and spreads out her recollections of a love affair she embarked on in 1989, when she was first drawing “Dirty Plotte.” She spreads them out quite literally, in fact: She fills up every page completely, drawing across page boundaries and even smudging onto the book’s uncut edges, as if she’s working on a single long scroll. That’s one of many ways “Time Zone J” establishes its space on the pavement. With dense compositions rendered in thick black ink (Doucet still draws as she did in the ’90s, as if she’s trying to blast through your skull and stamp her emblem on your brain), this is a book that won’t be ignored or denied.
It’s a little bit sad, then, that it dropped on the same day as another, somewhat less impactful feminist book — this one by two relative youngsters. Grace Ellis and Hannah Templer’s FLUNG OUT OF SPACE: Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith (Abrams ComicArts, 199 pp., $24.99) doesn’t deserve to be overshadowed by an icon’s spectacular re-emergence. It’s a deftly told, funny and sad tale of a great lesbian writer’s struggle to find herself amid the collective psychological lockdown of the late 1940s and ’50s. Before she sold “Strangers on a Train” to Hollywood and created “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Highsmith wrote comic books (some for the great Stan Lee, pre-Marvel) to afford conversion therapy. “Flung Out of Space” is practically an anti-“Plotte.” Drawn with a stylus, its lines are tidy and smooth, not jittery and barely leashed like Doucet’s. It’s biography rather than memoir, impersonal rather than self-absorbed. Even the fact that it’s the work of a writer-artist team sets it apart from Doucet’s ’90s auteurism.
Templer’s spare lines may not be as emotive as Doucet’s, but they’re ideal for this midcentury story. She eliminates the grottiness that would have characterized places like Marie’s, the gay bar Highsmith visits; her sterile spaces reflect Highsmith’s alienation and physical deprivation. Templer seems influenced by Annie Goetzinger, whose “Girl in Dior” also had a clean, midcentury look and setting. Templer’s work is more stylized than Goetzinger’s, and she infuses her characters with more idiosyncrasy and energy. When Highsmith encounters the woman who will inspire her touchstone lesbian novel “The Price of Salt” — a goddess in full ’50s feminine drag, radiantly filling up a full page — well. Nobody could have done it better.
Still, it’s a shame this book doesn’t have just a bit more of Doucet’s off-the-rails vibe. Highsmith’s life would have lent itself wonderfully to the gonzo salacity that characterized ’90s comics. Her first psychoanalyst actually tells her to stop writing comic books because they’re “leading you down the path of degradation”! You can’t find funnier irony than that. Alas, Ellis presents it straight. She does better with other ridiculous moments, as when Highsmith’s second analyst (she’s been fired by the first after trying to seduce her) announces his recommendation for the poor, misguided lesbian: group therapy.
While Doucet and Ellis/Templer are drastically at odds in their attitudes toward self-expression and self-control, the most interesting difference between them is how they inhabit their feminism. Doucet had to fight to get the time of day from a bunch of sexist male artists who weren’t nearly as talented as she was, and she’s still mad about it. Ellis and Templer take for granted that women can create great comics. It’s queerness, not female power, that they’re fighting for.
One thing these women do agree on, though, is that the past is sexy. Forbidden things always are. Doucet knows she shouldn’t be dwelling on the hot times she had when she was young, dumb and in love with a crazy person. Ellis and Templer know they shouldn’t be hankering for the chance to seduce a curvaceous psychoanalyst who’s trying to turn them straight. And yet they can’t resist that pull. For women, the past is always a place we shouldn’t want to go back to. Doucet and her heirs have created powerful books about that sirenic lure, even while they allow it to suck them under.
Etelka Lehoczky writes regularly about comics and graphic novels for NPR.