SPX Spotlight 2014: Liz Prince Part 2-A Review of Tomboy

Welcome to another entry in the 2014 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, Panel Patter will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best conventions, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of Panel Patter's spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

Today, Panel Patter is extremely pleased to be double-spotlighting autobiographical cartoonist/zinester, Liz Prince, starting with an extensive interview and also including this review of her new graphic memoir from Zest Books, Tomboy. 

Created by Liz Prince
Published by Zest Books

Liz Prince has made a name for herself as a committed and talented autobiographical cartoonist over the past decade. She is an unabashed memoirist who possesses the crucial ingredients for thriving in this genre: a willingness to look honestly and openly at one’s self even if it’s uncomfortable and an ability to make an impression that resonates with other people even if storytelling specifics are personal. Keeping with this, her first graphic memoir, Tomboy, is a success, not only for Prince as a cartoonist, but for the rich material it provides for young adult audiences and nostalgic 20/30 somethings alike.

Prince says that this book is a “memoir about friendship, gender, bullies, growth, punk rock, and the power of the perfect outfit” and she would be right content wise. The book deals with hills and valleys of growing up. Prince’s dialogue and character design are excellent in revealing the nuances of child/teen friendship cycles, the changing nature of male-female relationships in middle and high school, early crushes and dating, popularity hierarchies, bullying, and the feeling of finding your place in the world through community. Although this may be lost to younger generations, Prince also does a humorous job of incorporating pop-cultural and stylistic references from the 90s, be they Green Day shirts, Ghostbusters proton-pack toys, or sly Wayne’s World quotes. As someone also in her early 30s, I can say that this was absolutely spot on.

Artistically, Prince uses her deceivingly simple style, which is perfectly suited to this type of material. She employs universal male-female iconography throughout the book to emphasize her feelings of exclusion from gender norms (and aversion to wearing dresses). This could have been a trite technique, but Prince’s placements of the symbols are perfect in illustrating her feelings.

When you are a girl who does not neatly fall into societally imposed gender conventions, life can be a continual exercise in proving your right to being accepted on your own terms. Prince, who prefers to wear boys’ clothes from an early age and play with toys targeted towards boys, realizes at an early age that she is not a “girlie girl”. In fact, she comes to despise this brand of femininity and expresses her desire to be a boy. Prince is not transgendered and she’s not a lesbian, as she is often asked. She’s just a life long, self-described “tomboy”.

Much of the book details how her peers and teachers treated her due to this, her distain of  “traditional femininity”, and her resistance to and fear of puberty and womanhood. If this were the whole point of the book, it would get tiring and further perpetuate falsehoods regarding gender norms. The key is that Prince realizes at a certain point that her dislike of what it “means” to be a girl is an internalization of these gender norms. On some level she learns this through her friendships with other girls who don’t conform to these rigid feminine stereotypes, her mother’s unwavering acceptance of her, as well as her artistic mentorship by her mother’s friend Harley. But the turning point occurs when she volunteers at a zine library in a teen center and discovers the work of Ariel Schrag, who imparts her with the wisdom “ I want to be a girl on my own terms”.

I look forward to seeing more work like this from Prince. Tomboy is a delightful, funny, and inspiring coming-of-age memoir about a girl who dares to be herself and eventually realizes despite her trials, that this is the key to her authenticity.