Friday, November 6, 2015

'til the Blood Runs Red: Katie Skelly's My Pretty Vampire

(originally published at Loser City)

Katie Skelly hits all the 'feels.' Her comics bristle with verve, emotion and an 'it' factor best expressed as je ne sais quoi. What's easier, by far, to say (and see) is how she has honed her craft. Skelly is a cartoonist on the rise as her peers have confirmed. With Nurse Nurse, her 2012 debut, Skelly was able to get by on the charm of her idiosyncratic style and the risqué silliness of a story about nurses in space. In Operation Margarine (2014) she takes the sleazy low-brow trope of biker babes and elevates it to a modern morality tale of friendship, self-sacrifice, female empowerment and redemption. In between these two major works, Skelly has serialized a sex-positive-Barbarella-homage on-line porn comic, Agent 8, on slutist.

If Nurse Nurse and Operation Margarine are the major planets and Agent 8 is some kind of kinky satellite of love in the ever expanding Skelly-verse than the digital only Tonya—a skating fantasy comic about, yep, Tonya Harding—would be a whole other solar system, a recent discovery of the gravity and vastness of Skelly's talent. As if the pathos of Harding's real life story of wasn't enough, Skelly, with an equable and non-judgmental resolve, anatomizes Harding's highly toxic relationships, vulnerability and frustration as a woman amongst other competitive women and the damage therein. And all in twelve pages. The deeper tragedy Skelly wrings out of Harding's story comes from an exploration of how it must feel to be a top competitor and yet (almost) always finish out of the money, not a loser, but something far worse and far more human. Skelly shows how a metaphorical loser is perhaps better off than her real life equal. That's art. And it takes some ballsy ninja-storytelling skills to pull off such a feat. The implications on the final page of Tonya and the revelation that occurs in its final panel devastates in a way that's exclusive to comics, a last single frozen frame that sez it's all fucked (dearest) and you're (partly) to blame.

As Tonya was turning triple axels in Skelly's mind, she was also developing My Pretty Vampire on her tumblr and as a black-and-white mini-comic. In September, Skelly posted, ''after some big projects came and went and my style started changing, i [sic] decided to scrap what i had drawn to rewrite it and redraw it as a color comic.'' My Pretty Vampire took its bow in an 8½ X 11 European album format comic at the 2015 Small Press Expo. Later Skelly tweeted a vow to complete the next chapter by early November in time for Comic Arts Brooklyn.     

My Pretty Vampire begins and ends with a dream. One is unconscious and inert, while the other manifests as a conscious desire, an action. First dreams first. When Clover—the ''pretty'' vampire in question, a blond who sports a Bardot half undone updo—sleeps, she dreams of her past, of the frail girl in a diaphones robe as white as a winding sheet, of the girl she once was four years ago and the fanged bloodsucker she has become. Bare-chested and wearing red French cut briefs she looms over her supine self. Vampire-Clover is a sly coquette, curious, but un-tried. Corpse-Clover is dead and that's it. Dead. The larger panels to give Skelly's figures more brio and attitude, if such a thing is possible in her comics.

This image of the two Clovers foregrounds the dream's dominant colors, an oxygen-rich blood red and a pale canary yellow. Interlaced with black slashes, the image elicits a mood straight out of the wacked out cyclorama of Dario Argento's Suspiria. If you listen closely you can almost hear the nonsensical chanting of Goblin. Blood is colored black as it drips off flowers and from vampire-Clover's hair and as it pools around corpse-Clover's head. To turn the blood black is a smart choice from a shrewd storyteller because it foreshadows the narrative and speaks to Clover's standing as a character in stasis. The woman she was is dead and so is the blood. Clover is a vampire, yes, and powerful, yes, but she still feeds on the dead and not the living. Vampires are border crossers and Clover, for now, is stuck between stations. Right or wrong, Skelly's protagonists like Bon-Bon in Operation Margarine, Agent 9 and Tonya are all women of action and Clover is not, yet.

My Pretty Vampire is the first chapter in a longer story and even though it's a far too few fourteen pages, it's lithe and complete. Clover is a kept vampire, castled away by her brother Marcel who forces her to drink (black) ox blood instead of hunting on her own. Clover is impetuous, bratty and frustrated like many all Skelly's characters, ready to kick out the jams, but not sure how. Curious that Skelly is able to tap into this dissatisfaction when her art is so accomplished and never, never loses its shit cool.

Clover's room holds the trappings of her former life like stuffed toys and mirrors. In a flight of absurdism that dovetails with Skelly's love for cult classics and trash cinema, Clover wears a schoolgirl uniform, complete with pleated skirt, when she studies. The outfit and the requirement a vampire keeps up with her schoolwork is probably Marcel's doing … of course. It's on her way to her studies that she receives some contraband cigarettes and matches from the resident cook, Elsa. After all, who else? In a deft Argento-esque touch Skelly gives Elsa a semi-Romanian/Eastern accent that turns her 'v's' to 'f's' and 'w's' to 'v's.' Smokes in hand, the stage is set for the second of Clover's dreams, but in this one she's not the nocturnal wan wanderer looking for answers, she's a vampire with a pen, paper and a plan. Her fangs flank a cigarette as it burns between her lips as she writes: ''my escape.'' While not a full-on act of rebellion it's the proverbial penultimate moment before the wolves show up at the door, the stillness before the sharpest teeth sink through the softest flesh and all that blood starts to flow red, red, red.    

One of the reasons Skelly lists for redrawing My Pretty Vampire and publishing it is because, as she says, ''my style started changing.'' The style she refers to has, perhaps, more to do with her writing than her cartooning. Skelly sets herself apart as a cartoonist with her emotionally rich yet straight-forward linework and uncomplicated panels. Her style is her style and any 'change' is more in its refinement as she continues to perfect her craft. To see this 'change,' look at the entirely silent sequence of Clover swimming naked in the castle's indoor pool. The statues lining the pool's perimeter and the plumes of steam make Clover look like the undead goddess she's about to become. The colors and cartooning are some of the best work Skelly has done. The change, style-wise, comes in the inclusion of this sequence and how it informs the pacing of the story. It's languorous and makes the reader implicit in Clover's torpor and allows Skelly wink at (and indulge in) the Fonda-esque. The panel she reserves for a wafting curl of steam as it rises to meet the moon transcends as it adds mood on top of mood to an already moody and sexy sequence.

Slowing down the narrative to include a story beat like this steam bath is something Skelly began in earnest in Operation Margarine. She further develops this technique in Tonya where she uses a single panel of a tweeting bird to smash cut to the abuse Tonya has suffered, a metaphoric fracture as to the character's state of mind. The cutaway to the steam in My Pretty Vampire is more tangential, more about atmosphere, but the effect is similar in how it plays with time, develops the story and comments on the action. Skelly's character game has always been a strong. The only change in her work is in how much more muscular she has become as a storyteller.

My Pretty Vampire and Tonya are evidence of Skelly's ability to pull off deeper and deeper dives into emotional depths with the saucy self-confidence of an 'it girl.' Perhaps that's what Skelly is, an 'it girl' of indie comics—a sophisticated and expert cartoonist ready to strike.
For all things Katie Skelly visit her Tumblr. 

Keith Silva believes the best way to watch Deathdream is with the sound turned down and Iggy Pop's Lust for Life turned all the way up! Follow @keithpmsilva


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