Rob Kirby Reviews 100 Crushes by Elisha Lim

Toronto artist Elisha Lim exists in a special niche of the alt-comics realm. Lim's subjects are cultural outsiders and gender transgressors: masculine women (butches), and feminine men—some of them non cis-gendered and none of them Caucasian—whose very existence challenges the hetero-, racial-, gender-normative status quo. In 100 Crushes, a uniquely engaging book, Lim features and, more importantly, celebrates subjects generally invisible to the wider community and often left out of or downplayed in the queer community. And that certainly applies to the alt-comics community as well (yeah, don’t get me started*). But times are slowly if steadily changing. Welcome to the future.

100 Crushes is neatly divided into six sections: “100 Butches,” a series of single-page, randomly numbered line drawing portraits of butch women with accompanying biographical text; “Sweetest Taboo, Memoirs of a Queer Child in the Eighties,” a single panel strip that ran for a couple of years in a Canadian gay newspaper, featuring different takes on such cultural icons as Corey Feldman, Inspector Gadget, and the great Pee-wee Herman; “The Illustrated Gentleman,” pages from a butch fashion zine Lim once created for they and their friends (“our own illustrated book of subversive sartorial splendour”); “Sissy,” the mirror opposite of “100 Butches,” paying tribute to "the sissies and femmes that inspire us;” the autobiographical “The Sacred Heart” and “America” (more on this section below); “They,” which details a queer collective experiment with the titular pronoun; and the deeply personal autobiography of “Jealousy.”

The book opens with “100 Butches.” Each entry is a sort of mash note-cum-tribute. Lim’s portraits range from a favorite lesbian aunt to ‘30’s blues singer Ma Rainey to strangers for whom Lim has either instant attraction or develops intense identification. My favorite is Butch #34, a “half-Chinese hipster” Lim sketches on the subway, who reminds Lim of themself, “only fancier.” Lim watches their doppelganger desperately courting a gorgeous drunken female friend, whose “glossy tumbling hair” is unfortunately accompanied by “indifferent heterosexuality.” 

This siren eventually cuddles up to a guy on the train, oblivious to the fact that’s she’s totally crushing her butch friend’s heart. It’s quite a vivid portrait, all in just one page. Lim presents the kind of anecdotal evidence that takes a specific situation and makes it something intensely relatable (your heart breaks a little, along with Lim’s, for that subway butch). The crumpled paper background of these drawings lends them immediacy, a secret, rescued-from-the wastebasket feel.

 My other favorite section is a work-in-progress called The Hong Moon Lesbians of the Sacred Heart,” of which the first two brief chapters, “The Sacred Heart” and “America,” are presented. It's a fascinating first-person account of the effects of American culture on other cultures, specifically Singapore, Lim’s home country. In their secondary all-female Catholic convent school, young Lim and their fellow students idolize a classmate named Ling Ling who had, at age eight, lived in Pennsylvania for a year. To their impressionable young minds, Ling Ling represents a street-cool sophistication, having absorbed by osmosis an otherwise unobtainable American-ness in her time there. The girls watch in awe and envy as Ling Ling performs an assigned dance routine to hip hop (which none of them have ever heard before), plays basketball (which the girls have never played before), and generally presents herself as bold and swaggering, simply by virtue of her former stateside residency.

It’s a funny, touching, and rather sobering read. Lim reminds us: “There are six billion of us who do not come from North America, and we know what it’s like to live in its shadow – to grow up hearing, seeing, reading, watching, discussing, interpreting, and obsessing over it.” I very much hope Lim continues with this project; the concept is golden and would make a great book in its own right. 

Lim’s bio states that they "takes great pleasure in creatively portraying the beauty, dignity and power of being neither straight, nor white, nor cis-gendered.” Lim also successfully advocated for Canadian gay media to adopt the gender neutral pronoun “they.” (I have done my best to respect that here.**).  What these comics and drawings convey above all is a sense of urgency; Lim documents their subjects and their lives, bearing witness to the fact that these voices matter, whether or not the dominant culture recognizes anyone different from the status quo. The personal being political, Lim presents these stories with ingenuous honesty and humor, never didactic, never hectoring. They entertain while they educate. 100 Crushes expands the conversation of comics beyond the binaries of male/female, black/white, straight/gay. It comes highly recommended for queer and gender studies groups and to anyone else on the outside looking in, or inside looking out.  

*[Editor's Note: I couldn't agree more with Rob K. in relation to the strange way in which indie comix get coverage. Some seem to receive all the attention in the world, right up to the CBR/Newsarama level, while others, which in my opinion are far better, don't. But that's a story for another day. The short version is Panel Patter's explicit mission is to help comics like this one get the attention they deserve. I remain hopeful that this is a valuable, viable service to the overall comics community. -Rob M.]

**[Editor's note: I worked with Rob K. to make all references to Lim respect their pronoun preference. Any errors are ours, and we apologize to Lim if we made any errors, which will be corrected if pointed out.-Rob M.]