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/