Where in the world did Cathy G. Johnson come from, and why isn’t Gorgeous a much longer book? That’s what I want to know. This book is so good it makes me hate Johnson a little bit for making it only sixty pages. I mean, she’s created plenty of other mini-comics to indulge in—Dear Amanda, Thank God, I Am in Love, and Lovers Only to name a few—but this book is different, and I want there to be more of it.
Gorgeous (Koyama Press, 2016) could easily be an epic long-form graphic novel. It is a compact work of tension-building and timing, it’s about action and openness. Each panel is a battlefield of graceful aggressiveness, and capoeira-like draftsmanship. The smokiness of Johnson’s push-and-pull pencil strokes will make you question why anyone would ever want to use ink in comics.
On a dark, starry night, a car accident thrusts two white anarchist punks and Sophie–a young woman of color–together. I cringed as I read, feeling in my gut that Sophie was going to get screwed over by these overconfident guys, who only moments before the crash expressed distain for women. As they help her call a tow truck and wait with her at an all-night diner they grill her on everything from why she’s wasting her time in college to what she wanted to be when she grew up. Sophie, with a black eye and broken glasses, remains timid, crouched into herself like a fearful animal, and answers their questions flatly and reluctantly.
Eventually, Sophie opens up a little. She maintains a look of worry throughout the interrogation, but she shares little bits. Like, that she pays for college with a scholarship, and gets help from her mom, but that she hasn’t decided a major yet. She quietly shares that she used to write poems that were kind of sad, and that didn’t rhyme. When she gets up to use the bathroom, they steal her purse and ditch her.
As the sun rises, Sophie scrambles to get to her weightlifting competition, which provides an interesting shift in the narrative. Up until then, Sophie seemed like a vulnerable character—a woman, alone, in the company of two strange men. All of a sudden the narrative is re-written, and I even feel guilty for assuming Sophie was the vulnerable one. In reality, she could have bench-pressed those punks.
At the competition Sophie has an awakening. She suddenly remembers what she wanted to be when she grew up, and it’s summarized by Gorgeous, a poem she had written at age eleven. I want so badly for this revelation to be the launching point for a much larger story about Sophie. I feel like there is so much inside of her that wants to come out, but the book ends just as her story sparks.
Johnson’s ability to introduce larger tensions like race, class, and gender within her comics is so compelling, and has the subtlety and sophistication of a Shonda Rhimes teleplay. My size complaint about Gorgeous is not a criticism, but a cry for more from Johnson. Thankfully, she is busy creating No Dogs Allowed, a graphic novel about a soccer team of misfit middle school girls to be published by First Second in 2017. Oh, and what did Sophie want to be when she grew up? A shooting star.