A Rough Kind Of Magic : Frances Cordelia Beaver’s “On A Cute One”

Can earnestness and heart alone carry a 600-plus-page graphic novel?

It’s a question I’d never thought to ask myself before, but was forced to upon completion of Philadelphia-based cartoonist Frances Cordelia Beaver’s new self-published tome On A Cute One, both because of where and how the book shines and where and how it comes up short. To be clear : what it does well, it does really well, and the ways in which it misses the mark aren’t “deal-breakers” by any stretch, so maybe I’ve answered my own introductory question here already, but nevertheless, let’s dig a bit deeper. After all, this is an ambitious work and has earned the right to be examined closely —

It’s clear right from the copyright indicia here that Beaver is straddling a fine line between memoir and fantasy, in a manner referred to in the literary world as “auto-fiction,” so it’s a given that many of protagonist Cordie’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences are rooted firmly in the artist’s own — but then there’s the whole Gorgon thing she’s got going on so, ya know, expect a fair degree of creative license, as well. Essentially, this is a travelogue relating a cross-country-and-back-again journey Cordie takes on a “Superliner” train (I guess a kind of Amtrak on steroids?), but it’s peppered with flashbacks and reminiscences generally related to her coming out and subsequent process of transition, so in that respect it has some thematic resonances and commonalities with celebrated recent works such as Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer and L. Nichols’ Flocks — but to Beaver’s credit, she largely eschews delivering a “primer” of sorts on issues relating to the non-binary community in favor of speaking to audiences who may or may not be trans themselves, but at least have a degree of social familiarity with trans individuals. Her narrative starting point, then, is not with early-days gender dysphoria but rather is considerably, for lack of a more readily available term, further down the road. That’s refreshing, as are Beaver’s emotively-articulated points of view on various issues trans folks face, particularly her detailed examination of trans women’s quest for acceptance among cis women, which is a recurring theme here that she deals with in an admirably open, honest, and candid fashion.

In fact, candor in general is something this book certainly doesn’t lack — Beaver’s authorial tone is remarkably frank and has no time for pretense, which is something I think we can all appreciate. What I will say, however, is that she probably could have used the services of an editor here. The pacing of the marrative is generally relaxed and fluid, but every once in awhile she’ll insert a jarring page loaded down with far too much exposition for its own good that puts the breaks on the rhythm of her storytelling, and I also found some of her flashback scenes to be handled a bit — -well, perhaps not so much clumsily as confusedly. There are instances where it’s not really clear at first when something is occurring and again, it seems to me that a pair of editorial eyes could have helped with that.

A couple things worth mentioning vis a vis the always-nebulous “style points” category : a LOT of this book is composed of double-page spreads, and they break right in the middle, as you can see above. Beaver is putting this out via the auspices of Lulu, so there’s probably nothing much that can be done about that, but it’s a shame, because her cartooning is well-thought-out, expressive, quite often imaginative and, when she’s drawing landscapes, flat-out gorgeous. It’s a travesty to see it bisected. One thing more firmly within Beaver’s control that I think lets the side down, though, is her decision to use computer-font lettering. I get it, this is a well and truly homemade project and one only has so much time, but Beaver’s hand lettering (utilized primarily, ironically, when she’s showing Cordie’s phone screen) is superb, and mechanical lettering can’t help but feel sterile and cold, which means in this case that it’s working directly against the otherwise-entirely-heartfelt aesthetics of the book as a whole.

All that being said, perhaps because this is so obviously a labor of love, in some ways I can’t help but find its technical and production “flaws,” as well as some of the overall amateurism on display (there are any number of questionable grammar choices, the monster metaphor at the heart of the narrative is sometimes too oblique for its own good, other times too obvious) to be more than a bit endearing in their own way. I do believe in granting “points for trying,” so while it’s never in doubt that Beaver is clearly “learning on the job,” so to speak, in my estimation that almost always makes for an interesting and exciting ride, even if it’s necessarily a bumpy one. There’s a world of difference between putting it all on the page and pouring your all into a page, and given the choice, I’ll opt for the latter every time — on that most crucial score, this is a book that I can say in all honesty absolutely never fails to deliver.


On A Cute One is available for $45.50 at https://www.lulu.com/en/us/shop/frances-beaver/on-a-cute-one/paperback/product-685m56.html?page=1&pageSize=4

Check out Frances Cordelia Beaver’s website at https://www.francescordeliabeaver.com/

TV Review: Pam & Tommy 1.5 “Uncle Jim & Aunt Susie in Duluth” (dir by Gwyneth Horder-Payton)

This week’s episode of Pam & Tommy was a definite improvement on last week’s, largely because it didn’t feature Seth Rogen wandering around with a “poor me” expression on his face.  Last week, far too much time was devoted to Rogen’s sad sack portrayal of Reed Gauthier, who the show insists on trying to make a sympathetic character even though he was essentially just a thief who tried to make a lot of money by stealing and then selling someone else’s private sex tape.

Reed was nowhere to be found in this week’s episode.  Instead, the narrative focused on how Pam and Tommy’s sex tape became a national story.  Not surprisingly, it all turned out to be Tommy Lee’s fault.  When the show opens, Jay Leno won’t make jokes about the sex tape because it’s not something that Uncle Jim and Aunt Susie in Duluth have heard about.  The LA Times won’t run a story on it because the editor says that it’s not real news.  With Pam preparing for the opening of Barb Wire and Tommy working on his new album (and very much aware that his label no longer views him or the band as being a top priority), it appears that there’s a chance that Pam and Tommy can ride this out.

But then Bob Guccione the publisher of Penthouse, gets his hands on the tape and Tommy and a bunch of lawyers decide to file a lawsuit to keep him for publishing stills.  Pam has her doubts but Tommy and the lawyers do what they want.  Guccione responds by saying that he had a first amendment right to publish pictures from the sex tape.  The L.A. Times discovers, from the court filings, that the sex tape was stolen from Pam and Tommy and that it’s being sold without their permission.  With the story going national, Jay Leno realizes that Duluth now know all about it.  On top of all that, Pam learns how to use a search engine!

It was a busy episode.  And, in contrast to the nearly hour-long episodes that proceeded it, it was only 32 minutes long.  A half hour is the perfect amount of time to spend with Pam & Tommy.  Spending more than half an hour with them means dealing with the fact that Tommy’s a moron and Pam really does seem to think that she’s going to win an Oscar for Barb Wire.  Spending just 30 minute with them means that both characters get a chance to present their cases without wearing out their welcome.  Sebastian Stan and Lily James both gave good performances in this week’s episode, with Stan portraying Tommy as being a manchild who is in deep denial about the fact that the 80s are over while Lily James captured Pam’s need to try to keep everyone happy.  It’s Pam who instinctively knows the right way to deal with Guccione but she’s ignored by Tommy and his team of lawyers.  As Pam’s publicist puts it, women are taught from an early age to always say yes and to agree with men, even when they know that the men doesn’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

That said, Pam & Tommy is still definitely a flawed vehicle.  For every moment that works, there’s a moment or a line of dialogue that just tries too hard.  Particularly in the scenes with Jay Leno, Pam & Tommy felt like it was one Nathan Lane cameo away from turning into a Ryan Murphy production.  Five episodes in and the main problem remains that Pam & Tommy continues to struggle to convince the audience that it’s telling a story that needs to be stretched out of over 8 episodes.  If ever a true story was meant to a 90-minute TBS production, this is it.