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“Mythology is so weird,” says Pen, the level-headed best friend and foil to Caroline Bertram, the fierce, rudderless queer art school graduate at the center of Cannonball, the new debut graphic novel from Kelsey Wroten. Pen (whose full name, Penelope, suggests the Homeric-level mythological traditions this book engages with) and Caroline have, in desperate, impoverished boredom, shown up at a grimy house party where a beefy bro is trying to impress Pen by telling them about a tattoo he plans to get of the Norse mythological king of the wolves, Finrir, who he proclaims “unstoppable.” “Except that I’m pretty sure they did,” Pen responds, “with a chain made out of like bird spit and lady beards.”
The weirdness of mythologies—the bizarre yet apt symbolic narratives we develop to articulate the problems and insights that defy ordinary language—is Cannonball’s obsession, which it pursues with a dazzling blend of intelligence and anti-elitism. Cannonball is about taking whatever is at hand, however meager, and making something out of it. This is a book where the protagonist, finding her cupboards nearly bare, feeds a stray cat a bowl of goldfish crackers; where her personal mythology revolves around the female wrestler Cannonball, who Caroline watches out of genuine awe, but also because wrestling is something she can watch for free thanks to her retro bunny-ear television. It’s a book where the main characters spend most of their time viciously gossiping about each other at dive bars (smuggling in their own drinks in backpacks to save money), discussing whose work has been published in which low-circulation zines or journals. These conversations espouse a commitment to artistic authenticity that only thinly veils what really defines the zeitgeist of those trying to make a home for themselves in the world of arts and culture in the early twenty-first century: lack. There’s not enough to go around, and, without that, there can be no community.
But Wroten goes far beyond simply identifying the labor conditions that threaten the much-needed work queer artists do to produce new narratives and viable mythologies to sustain LGBTQ+ people. This is also a more universal story of exploring the complexities of human psychology: in line with Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother and Ellen Forney’s Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me, Wroten’s story is about a person trying to control extremes of feeling and understand their source.
Appropriately, given the book’s sometimes-explicit Freudian bent (characters reference—and embody!—polymorphic perversity, oral fixation, and more), for Caroline, locating these answers means going back to childhood. She ends up writing a children’s book, a hero’s journey fantasy about a girl rescuing the earth from doom, which becomes wildly popular. But in giving Caroline the recognition and impact she wants so badly, this sudden success also triggers her deep-rooted fear of being unloved, misunderstood, and abandoned.
Caroline is an engrossing protagonist: both hateful and sympathetic. She is viciously self-protective, lashing out not only against every perceived indignity, however minor, but also against shows of love. The book opens with her coldly rejecting a woman she has just spent the night with and later mocking the woman behind her back for a disability. Caroline’s meanness is unforgivable, and it is also a part of the lack of regard for others that enables her to eventually create an authentic story. Even as Cannonball asks the reader to judge Caroline for her sins, it also reveals that her self-protectiveness is a necessary survival mechanism. Reflecting an experience that is still shared by far too many queer people, Caroline is fending for herself. Her homophobic father cruelly laughs at her ambitions and at the person she has become, driving her out of her childhood home. At the release party for her successful first book, her friends admit among themselves that “no one likes her particularly.”
The originary hurt of familial abandonment, compounded by emotional and material paucity of the art world, leads Caroline to view the world as always poised to disappoint, and it often does. Reminiscent of Claire from the television series Six Feet Under or the author-protagonist of Diablo Cody’s film Young Adult, but with the aesthetic of Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Caroline’s animosity toward the world comes from her utopianism. Witnessing anything less than emotional honesty and a devotion to one’s passions leads her in a downward spiral of depression.
A central motif in Wroten’s artwork is her turn from the sharp detail and masterful control over line that characterizes the majority of her panels to the shaky uncertainty of a child’s hand, both in the scenes depicting the YA story Caroline pens and each moment where Caroline approaches a major personal revelation, such as when receiving a national award for her book. These moments at once express the sickening feeling of being overwhelmed by the unfamiliar and, at the same time, the optimistic possibility that the seemingly fixed and certain world of disappointments that Caroline moves within may not be permanent: if she lets the familiar, cynical order she operates in come apart, she might enable herself to put something new together.
In all of its grimness, Cannonball is a strikingly fun and funny read. Fans of Roz Chast or Maggie Thrash will find a similar combination of humor and a commitment to not shying away from the unresolvable.
By Kelsey Wroten
Hardcover, 9781941250334, 272 pp.