ELLEN FORNEY’S comic strip art is a non-nostalgic blast from the indie arts scene of the 1990s -- that time after Kurt Cobain’s death, before Courtney Love became a corporate commodity, when the world seemed a more hopeful place. Forney, a longtime contributor to Seattle’s alternative weekly the Stranger, produces work that is sexually explicit and occasionally gross.
Forney’s latest book, “I Love Led Zeppelin,” contains nudity, homosexual coming-of-age stories and directions on reattaching amputated fingers. Yet her comics don’t seem intended to shock but rather to show that the world is bigger, stranger and quite possibly more beautiful than you thought. In his introduction, author Sherman Alexie says her comics are “hotter than five-star curry.” But given her open-minded sense of humor, she’s more like one big, zany breath of fresh air.
“I Love Led Zeppelin” begins with a series of how-to’s, a mix of social commentary and advice for edgy situations: “How to Talk About Drugs With Your Kids”; “How to Twirl Your Tassels in Opposite Directions,” with advice from an erotic dancer (looks like a good low-impact workout); how to use your voice as a form of defense; and “How to Become a Successful Call Girl.” (Hint: You have to be “conventionally pretty,” not bohemian.) Far sadder is “Old Glory: How to Fold the Flag and Present It to the Next of Kin,” which she reports straightforwardly, complete with a chart of where the mourners stand at a military funeral.
Forney’s characters often have a certain light in their eyes. It is particularly strong in her collaborations with sex columnist Dan Savage that are included here. Savage describes his delight as a child when he dressed up in his sister’s Brownie Scout uniform for Halloween; Forney’s drawings show a coy glee in the young boy’s eyes. “While I wasn’t glamorous, I somehow had the impulse TO BE REAL.... I wanted to be ... a GIRL!”
“My First Time” depicts Savage as a boy being seduced by a gorgeous camp counselor. It starts with the two boys in a wrestling match (“Loser does whatever winner wants”), then, as Forney shows the tension building, she cuts to an older Savage telling a friend that it’s not actually his story, though he wishes it were. The reader intuits, sadly, that wonderful first-time sexual experiences may be as uncommon among gays as among straights.
In a rare moment of nostalgia, Forney writes of a 1970s “costume party to beat all costume parties” that she attended with her father as a child: “Dad and I went as thermometers,” rectal (Dad) and oral (Forney). Her father’s friend Vic went as a large penis. But instead of relating a tragic story in which children survive the shenanigans of horrible hippie parents, she tells a yarn that’s sweet and kind. The adults are, in their own strange way, adult. Yes, Vic uses his costume to make people uncomfortable. But after the party he repaints it to make a rocket-ship playhouse for his kids. Reading “I Love Led Zeppelin,” you sense that fitting in and going with the flow are things adults leave behind in their early 20s.
Many of the comics deal with drug use, gender-bending and sexual escapades but these stories are told with a sort of tenderness. One relates how a friend had the chance to drink bourbon with songwriter Tom Waits. Instead of acting cool, she loses it and yells, “I fight nuclear power!” The look on the woman’s face is that of a lost and earnest dork, and the reader feels compassion for her.
More touching is Forney’s collaboration with David Schmader about a mother who tells her son how she used cocaine. “1975. Lunch with friends, who knew Deep Purple.... Back in the tour bus: Snort! Snort snort! Afterwards, she came home and made dinner.” In the final panel, she becomes three-dimensional in her son’s eyes. The point of the story is not the drugs but that Mom’s a person too.
There is also a wordless set of panels showing a woman twirling on a trapeze. The female aerialist sports a modified crew cut and conspicuous armpit hair. She sweats and strains, then dismounts and takes a bow. Even the trapeze seems to applaud. It’s gritty, real and absolutely beautiful.
That’s Forney’s secret. “I Love Led Zeppelin” is a beautiful book, but it has a sneaky beauty. Amid the post-punk attitudes, the hints of sadomasochism and wry looks on characters’ faces, Forney offers real laughter and deep glimpses of the human. Sometimes you have to trick people into happiness. Forney pulls off this trick again and again.