I Don’t Like My Hair Neat #1-2; I Wished I Was Married to the Sea

Have you ever underrated someone while praising them to the heavens? A friend perhaps, someone whose dress sense and confidence you’ve long admired without realizing that in doing so you were also reducing them to those qualities?  Worse still, that you had somehow decided that because these attributes were so hard to ignore, your were somehow giving them all the attention they required just by doing that?

That’s how I felt when I read the second volume of I Don’t Like My Hair Neat for the first time. I’d written a snappy, enthusiastic review of the first issue earlier in the same year, one that I thought was appropriate to Julia Scheele‘s talents in tone if not in excellence.

It was clear to me even then that Scheele is a better cartoonist than I am a writer.

The second issue initially seemed to me to be something else, something more traditionally laudable.  Reading it on the train up from that year’s Thought Bubble in my traditional vulnerable, hung-up and borderline euphoric post-con state, I was surprised and overwhelmed.  At the risk of getting a bit Dead Zone about it, I felt like the ice was going to break:

Make of this what you will. For me, it’s evidence that the bullshit critical distinction between Style and Content is somehow alive and in me in the present tense, some half a century after Sustan Sontag publicly annihilated it in ‘On Style’:

Practically all metaphors for style amount to placing matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor. The matter, the subject, is on the outside; the style is on the inside. As Cocteau writes: “Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body.” Even if one were to define style as the manner of our appearing, this by no means necessarily entails an opposition between a style that one assumes and one’s “true” being. In fact, such a disjunction is extremely rare. In almost every case, our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face…

The fact that Sontag’s argument later lapsed into the metaphysics of the will need not distract us yet, because taken together the first two issues of I Don’t Like My Hair Neat and 2015′s I Wished Was Married to the Sea make an argument for Scheele’s style that makes my initial confusion about her subject matter seem not only dumb but callow.

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Looking back at the two issues of I Don’t Like My Hair Neat that Scheele has published – I believe Scheele has fallen out of love with the title, so I doubt we’ll see many more volumes under this name – what’s striking to me now is how similar the content of both books actually is.

For all that it’s a hip, well-designed package, capped off by a picture of a rakish girl Robin smoking like the baddest kid in school, IDLMHN#1 isn’t exactly short of drama.  The first story ‘Positive, written by Katie West, deals with a panic about an affair and the pregnancy that might follow, and the rest of the strips that follow is of a piece with this opening.

Scheele’s flair for making her design tell the story impressed me to the extent that I was too busy looking at what she’d done to actually see it. Perhaps you will understand why I became such a poor reader if you observe the way ‘Positive’ moves from dreamy blues to raw autumnal colours, and overlays its action with graphical representations of the child that could yet be, literalising the protagonist’s idle speculation.

Or perhaps you’d be better convinced by the brevity of ‘Burn Out’:

The strips that make up the second issue aren’t notably more emotional or revelatory in content.  As if to help us to disparage my initial impression further, there are visual motifs that mirror each other in both volumes.  Can some of these be written off as elements of style?  The raw, howling sun that appears in both issue #1′s playfully poetic ’Diem’ (written by Chrissy Williams) and #2′s ‘Bad Omen’ both tempts and transcends this reading:

Other echoes seem to represent a more overt attempt to deal with the same subject in different ways, like the occurance of two almost-identical panels in issue #1′s ‘A Short History of Touches’ and issue #2′s Le Tigre-adapting ’Tell You Now’.  In the first issue, this panel creeps up on the reader, adding a note of uncertainty, a re-contextualisation of what might otherwise have seemed sensual, intimate:

In ‘Tell You Now’, this same image is replicated in more muted tones, as the one visual representation of the presence of the attacker in a strip that depicts the aftermath of abuse:

Note how here is is the resolution against the action depicted that is highlighted in red.

Taken in side-by-side these strips amount to a sort of working through of what this image can mean, what sort of experiences it might suggest, and what can be done with all of that (the image/the experience).  It’s too raw and affecting for me to feel comfortable writing about it, and it works in a way that leaves no room for doubt as to the intelligence, the decision making behind the page.

Call it what you want: style, substance, storytelling, formal experimentation. The distinctions start to seem meaningless when the effects are this clear.

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All of which big talk begs the question: why was I so slow to understand the nature of Scheele’s talents? What was it about issue #2 that helped me to come to grips with them?

To be fair to myself, some of this may be attributed to the dazzle of the new, and some of it probably has to do with the sort of cultural programming that makes us associate more obtuse storytelling such as that found in issue #2 strips like ‘What is Left Behind’ and the aforementioned ‘Bad Omen’, but such a reading still ignores the more direct, motivational ‘Keep Moving’ and the bracing depiction of depression in ‘Sinking’.

I caught myself out on some typical critic bullshit, basically: identify the basic outline of what something’s doing, pat yourself on the back for doing so, leave the difficult questions posed by everything that doesn’t fit your theory to the side, totally failing to deal with the complex interactions between self, other and world prompted by the art in front of you.

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Thankfully, the third time I bought a Julia Scheele comic, I was finally able to read it with something approaching clarity.  To read I Wished I Was Married to the Sea is to come face-to-face with an artist who is equally at home with the fable form of the title story as she is with the autobiographical mode adopted in ‘Hello Again’. It is to find yourself as impressed by the ability to convey the passage of time through shifts in colour alone in ‘Tired’ as you are by the bare, sketchy line work Scheele uses to illustrate ‘Seventh Grade at Christian School’.

It is, in short, to find yourself freshly convinced by Susan Sontag-esque claims that the style of an artist is something like the unified expression of their soul, most clearly expressed in these comics in the way Scheele’s characters form around their arms, either reaching outwards with everything they’ve got…

…or otherwise entrenched behind the immaculate points of their elbows:

In the time since she completed I Wished I Was Married to the Sea, Julia Scheele has provided illustrations for the non-fiction book Queer: A Graphic History, drawn a Phonogram B-side and contributed to a variety of zines, many of them published by the One Beat collective she runs with Sarah Broadhurt.  Scheele’s work is powerful and radiant in these contexts, which reveal her to be a cartoonist and illustrator for whom working is indistinguishable from thinking.

Wherever her illustrations wander, you can feel her whole being wandering there too, just waiting to find new strength and clarity in every shape it makes on the page:

It’s a pleasure to be able to follow these lines of thought.

One Response to “Julia Scheele – Cut That Hair!”

  1. plok Says:

    That is a pretty darn good Art Paragraph, I must say.

    I knew “I Wished I was Married To The Sea” from before, but didn’t specifically know Julia’s name…

    …But now I do!

    And will be looking for it.

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