Drink tea and read comic books 2019.09.22

This month's edition of #DrinkTeaReadBooks features some pu'er-fuelled ramblings prompted by a recent reading of Alan Moore's "Watchmen" and Kat Verhoeven's "Meat and Bone".

Drink tea and read comic books 2019.09.22

Learning different brewing techniques is opening up a world of interesting tea experiences! This summer a friend of mine introduced me to gongfu-style brewing and pu’er. In August, when I was feeling a little stronger, she invited me to come with her to Ming Tao Xuan here in Old Montréal. The owners were really kind and recommended I try out the Wild Orchid Sheng Pu’erh, perfect for the transition from one season to the next. The taste reminds me of late summer and the smell of rolled hay drying in the sun — with notes that hint of cider and apricot. I recommend it for folks interested in trying something wonderfully different.

Now that we have our tea, let’s take a look at this week’s books. I want to talk about two graphic novels I read in early September and which linger still on my mind.

Watchmen by Alan Moore

This was technically my second-ever reading of Watchmen. I have dim memories of borrowing the graphic novel from a friend ten years ago now, around the time the movie came out. I don’t remember much about it, except maybe that the film — chiefly its soundtrack — left a stronger lingering impression over time.

When I borrowed a copy of the graphic novel from the library just before “Labour Day”, I had a few considerations in mind going into this new reread. The first, and biggest one, was prompted during my long bedrest this past summer. I watched a lot of YouTube videos throughout July while stuck in bed, including this one by Jesse Tribble which examines very closely how Zach Snyder fundamentally misunderstood Watchmen’s key themes when he adapted the graphic novel for the big screen. Rather than solely focusing on a brutal takedown of Snyder, the video also spoke at length on the art design, the impact of the layout of the graphic novel, as well as some of novel’s key themes including physics and politics. The way it discussed its political themes in particular made me realise that when I had read the graphic novel at 18, I had missed a lot. Not on purpose, just by virtue of being right out of high school and having extremely limited political and historical consciousness.

So, throughout “Labour Day” weekend, I was rereading with an eye for what the creator of that YouTube video had explained, but also for anything I might have missed. As I was rediscovering the epistolary nature of the graphic novel, two characters stuck out for me a little differently this time around. Those two characters were Doctor Manhattan and Rorschach.

In ten years, my understanding of a few things have profoundly changed. In particular, I have a better (though still imperfect) understanding of the nature of both fascism and liberalism, and how they are two sides of the same coin. There are no heroes in Watchmen — that’s old news. These men — and Silk Spectre — operate not in the interest of people, but in the interest of the ideals of order, of systems.

I kept thinking about Manhattan’s and Rorschach relationship to fascism. Manhattan is fully collaborative and for the most part subservient to the US government’s empire-building foreign policy and its violent colonial, patriarchal, carceral foundation. As a quasi-all-powerful being, he represents in an extremely matter of fact way the USA’s monopoly on violence at home and abroad. Rorschach is the outsider, the outlaw, the vigilante, yet wholly complicit in the carceral system when he isn’t outright murdering his targets. A lot is said about the Comedian being an outright Nazi (I think at one point it’s even quite literal, as we see in the included chapters of the first Night Owls’ memoirs) but less is said about Manhattan’s and Rorschach’s roles in precipitating/creating the conditions for fascism to flourish — and their respective roles precipitating the “end of the world.”

I’ve spent a lot of time this summer thinking deeply about the functions of shame and punishment in our political, social, and emotional lives. I’ve certainly been thinking a lot about the presence of shame in my own life so far. Rediscovering the chauvinistic, ableist, homophobic, whorephobic, unyielding and cruel Rorschach, after spending a summer thinking about shame was — jarring. It also felt extremely revealing that, 10 years ago, so many of the nerds I hung out with were so enamoured with the highly idealistic, highly uncompromising Rorschach — I’m hazarding a guess that it was for the same reason a lot of my friends in high school were really into the “dark and gritty” Christopher Nolan portrayal of Batman, or even the extremely brutal re-imagining of James Bond à la Daniel Craig. If Doctor Manhattan is the unyielding, cold, yet unrelenting devastation of colonial and imperial systems, Rorschach is much closer to the coercive nature of toxic shame: eternal suffering. I don’t think it’s a surprise the character itself is portrayed as constantly suffering himself. There will be no healing and there are never mitigating circumstances in Rorschach’s worldview. Rorschach is punishment without reprieve, the embodiment of the cycle of violence. At the end of the graphic novel, after the atrocities committed by Ozymandias and the cover-up to attempt to preserve an unprecedented “world peace”, it is no surprise that Rorschach’s journal survives, the very arrow that will shatter the illusion that it’s all over. The cycle continues.

Meat and Bone by Kat Verhoeven

Content warning for discussion of disordered eating and eating disorders (particularly anorexia) ahead.

All right, let’s shake ourselves free of superheroes and talk about this queer “slice of life” graphic novel I read recently that blew me away. It definitely shifted something inside me.

Meat and Bone is a layered story about relationships, reconciling the expectations of society imposed upon you and your own need to live your life, and, most importantly, about trying to be in an ethical and honest relationship with yourself and all the people around you. It’s also about how women are punished for the bodies they live in, and how that corrodes their ability to connect. It’s about how queers deal with eating disorders.

It’s also about falling in love with someone through your shared need to self-harm, thanks to your ability to speak each other’s language: self-hatred.

Anne and Marshall’s developing, romantic friendship is beautifully told. I was transported through time while reading, reliving my own history with anorexia, toxic loves and friendships. I unsurprisingly identified really strongly with Marshall, with her tarot cards and red hair — but beyond the surface similarities there were pieces of myself in Marshall I had never seen written so explicitly before. From the refusal to name exactly what was going on, to going months drinking only water or soup broth.

I was thrown back to an era, when Tumblr was very new, and all I followed were "pro-ana" (“pro-anorexia”) accounts. And a handful of my first friendships in the trans community where with nonbinary folks and trans men who starved themselves because they needed to lose their curves to pass. Sometimes we spoke about it. Mostly we didn't, or did so covertly.

Needless to say, Anne and Marshall’s story was extremely familiar. I often grumble that I am tired of tragic queer love stories, but I admit I liked this one. The desperate need to control your body (and mind) in a world that has control of it already is a feeling I am so fucking familiar with. Uncovering these feelings, of naming and illustrating them through reading this graphic novel felt very cathartic.

That’s it for this month’s instalment of Drink Tea and Read Books! September has just been wildly busy, and I have a handful of other blog posts I’m going to try really hard to get out before October, including a really sarcastic (and hopefully hilarious) guide to freelancing that I’m hoping to finally wrap up.

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