“On top of a girl like a dream in a hotel, falling towards something out of control”
I love the subtitle of Flung Out of Space: “Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith.” That’s a teaser! This book, which is, yes, about Highsmith, is written by Grace Ellis and drawn by Hannah Templer, with edits by Charlotte Greenbaum. It’s published by Abrams Comicarts.
This is an interesting if slightly disappointing book about the years before and right after Highsmith sold her first novel, Strangers on a Train, in 1950. Obviously, the time frame is telescoped a bit, but it’s Highsmith in her mid- to late-20s/early-30s, writing comic books (which she hated) and trying to transition to a “real” writer. It’s also about her attempts to write a “lesbian” novel, which was eventually published under a pseudonym as The Price of Salt and was eventually renamed Carol. Of course, it’s also about Highsmith’s personal life, as she struggled with her sexuality and she tried to figure out how to live.
All of this sounds like a good brew of elements, and that’s why the book is pretty good. It’s disappointing, however, because of Highsmith herself. She’s not … mean enough, I guess? In her introduction, Ellis writes: “Patricia Highsmith was an appalling person. She was deeply anti-Semetic [sic], racist, and misogynistic, even by the standards of her time. I am not being hyperbolic when I say that many of her beliefs were nothing short of evil, and I know I speak for Hannah and the rest of this book’s team when I say that we condemn these beliefs as vehemently as possible.” Wow. That’s bold. She goes on to write that they included instances of her bigotry so readers could understand “who she was as a person.” I have no problem with any of that. We shouldn’t pretend that people in the past, even people who did admirable things, were completely free of prejudice. Highsmith may have written excellent novels and provided a touchstone for lesbians who wanted to read about a relationship that didn’t end in tragedy (Carol was rejected by most publishers specifically for that reason), but that doesn’t necessarily make her a good person. So I’m on board with Ellis’s statement.
But here’s the thing … her Highsmith isn’t really that bad. When she sees a therapist, she comments on the Judaism of the doctor in a somewhat sardonic fashion, but not in a completely horrible way. She’s rude to men, true, and she doesn’t form many good relationships, but, I mean, she’s living in the late 1940s, and the men are jerks, and the women she does meet who she wants to be with are hiding their true selves, marrying men they don’t love simply to fit into society. She’s not terribly nice, but again, people aren’t nice to her, and she’s reacting to that. Both her therapists – the younger woman and the older man – think her homosexuality needs to be “cured,” and Highsmith herself seems to have a lot of self-loathing because she’s not attracted to men, but wouldn’t we expect that from someone in that time period? I mean, she’s been told all her life that homosexuality is abnormal, so why wouldn’t she feel that way? She has some bad luck in her affairs, but she’s not actively evil to the women in her life. At the end, when a lesbian discovers that she wrote The Price of Salt under a pseudonym, the woman calls her a liar, even though the book “changed [her] life” and she has to know that lesbians can’t be “out” and still have a career in the early 1950s. People are pretty awful to Highsmith throughout the book, and when someone is relatively kind – one of the dudes at the comic book company she works at is all right – she responds relatively appropriately. So it’s disappointing that she’s not more … evil? This Highsmith is a perfectly fine character, but she’s actually pretty easy to root for, despite her foibles. She’s not as interesting, in other words, as the woman Ellis writes about in her introduction, a woman who is actively evil but can still write a love story about two women that has become so important to lesbians. That Highsmith would elevate this work, I think. The book is interesting – we see what’s going on in Highsmith’s life, how she struggles with her sexuality, veering between embracing it completely and talking about marrying a nice man, and we see her difficulties in getting published and her loathing for her profession (she meets Stan Lee early on in the book, and I hope Ellis is contrasting the failed novelist Lee, who wanted to leave comics, with the woman who actually did leave comics to write novels). The book works, and it’s a good look at how women during this time (and for far too long) had to hide who they were – even if they weren’t attracted to other women, they still were forced into roles that Highsmith, for one, didn’t want to play. But she’s not quite as fascinating as she could have been, because she’s too, well, nice.
Templer’s art is quite nice, too, so there’s that. She has a solid, thin-line basic style that isn’t fancy but gets the job done. There’s a slight manga influence, as the characters’ mouths and eyes become a bit more abstract when they experience intense emotion, and that’s blended nicely into the more concrete details of the work. Where the book shines is in the page layouts and the design of some of the pages. Templer uses a lot of panels, as she needs to get a lot of details onto each page, but her clean style means the book never feels too busy or crowded. She does some nice pages where she gives us a spread with panels interspersed over it, which is always a clever way to open up the page while still moving the story along. She uses window frames to form bars confining the women, which isn’t original but works quite well, and she uses the motif with other things in Highsmith’s world, too, which is keen. When Highsmith uses her imagination, Templer does some nice things – the comic-book stuff is a bit more basic, with bright colors and a Benday-dot effect, while her thoughts about novels are dark, with a lot of negative space and softer charcoal highlights. It’s very well done. She doesn’t always center characters in the panels, either, which has the effect of both allowing them to exist outside the confines of the book but also, paradoxically, closing them in, as if they’re being cut off by the panel borders. It’s a bit disorienting, and it’s a bit dehumanizing, which seems to fit Highsmith’s frame of mind as she navigates this hostile world.
As you can tell, I do like this comic, and it’s a bit frustrating I don’t find it more compelling. Ellis has a fascinating story to tell, and while I think she does it pretty well, I can’t help wondering if the Highsmith she writes about in the introduction had shown up in the subsequent narrative how much more weird and engrossing the book would be. Highsmith, it was clear, didn’t want to be a lesbian icon – it does not seem she even wanted to be a lesbian – and that tension is part of why the book is so good. Her contradictory nature with regard to other aspects of her life, however, don’t seem to be there, and it makes her more of a persecuted woman than a persecutor, which would have been more at odds with her writing. So while I think this is a worthy comic to check out, I can’t help feeling a vague sense of disappointment. It feels like it could be better, even though I think you should read it. But maybe I’m completely wrong. That does happen a lot!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆