PRIMAHOOD: Rebecca Fish Ewan reviews Tyler Cohen’s Excellent New Book

primahood cover

Primahood: Magenta, Tyler Cohen’s new book, embodies everything I love about reading graphic novels:

Their ability to condense multiple emotional and sensorial responses at once with each turn of the page. To be both funny and tormenting. To make me laugh at the image of Mamapants birthing a cat, while meeting her daughter Nene, drawn as a roaring tiger girl, for the first time. All on one page.

The book—is it a graphic novel? is it a graphic memoir?—just out from Stacked Deck Press is thick with these moments of surprise, humor and heart-touching exchange between mother and daughter as it explores the deeper questions of what it is to become a girl.

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WHAT IS FEMININE? WHAT’S A BOY? WHAT’S A GIRL? WHAT’S A TOMBOY? WHAT’S A PRINCESS?

It also interrogates broader notions of what determines music, race and beauty. Primahood navigates through these questions, not so much answering them from a pedantic position of learned wisdom, but in the open messy way that mothers discover who they are as they struggle to help their daughters find their own true spirits. When a mother finds herself explaining the women’s movement to a four year old is one of my favorite of many wonderful scenes in Cohen’s book.

Structure always extends beyond the framework of plot in graphic novels. Page design, use of dialog, the color palette, pacing, and line work impact the reading experience. One aspect of graphic novels that often exhausts me is dialog, when the story’s forward movement relies too much on conversations. Not once did I feel this tiredness while reading Cohen’s book. Each conversation seemed taken from real life, words exchanged in a family, spare and reduced to only what’s necessary. Especially Nene’s proclamations:

“I’M DONE WITH PINK!”

“I’M BROWN AND GREEN AND PEACH AND BLUE AND WHITE!”

“MARTI IDENTIFIES AS A DRAGON!”

There is also a musicality to graphic storytelling, a beat and rhythm that creates the flow of words and images. Primahood alternates between pages rendered with bold lines and saturated colors that show Mamapants and Nene moving through their days, and these ethereal pastel pages depicting the Primazons, women and girls, often nude and masked, engrossed in a kind of parallel universe of day to day activity, revealing the joy and sometimes terribleness of being together. The Primazon scenes gave me quiet moments between conversations and story progress, to gaze into this strange world and wonder what it all means. I adored these pages. They are the illustrated manifestation of my favorite line in the book: “But I think it’s more like facets in a fractal flowering over time.” Gaze and wonder. Delightful.

With humor and tenderness, the characters challenge societal issues of racism, sexism, sexuality and gender conformity. Cohen includes responses from other people (not depicted as story characters) to queries into being called a tomboy and the social sexualization of young girls. Cohen poses questions such as: “How old were you when you became aware of your chest as a publically negotiated space? The answers are both troubling and familiar. Women, from a very early age, experience relentless attempts by society to lay claim to their bodies. Cohen’s characters reject these claims again and again, often through movement.

As I read Primahood, the physicality of girlhood and womanhood was palpable. Nene cartwheels across the page, bounces like a frog, dances and runs. Her dynamic energy is matched by the variety of movement between pages, within panels and bursting out of panel frames. Not one single page was devoted to talking heads. Instead, the book vibrates with motion, revealing the joy and terror of the human body, in labor, at the playground, walking down the street, sitting on a park bench, playing dragon wars in the backyard, spider-walking up the hallway walls, and dancing. Even dialog bubbles are fair game for dancing figures or girls flying by on broomsticks.

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As the mother of a daughter, so much of what happens in Primahood resonates with me.

My daughter declared she was done with pink. Her first hair dye was a blue streak like Nene’s. Reading the book conjured memories of raising Isabel, or more accurately, raising ourselves together. The frustration of the pink aisle at toy stores, trying to find balance despite the pounding social expectations on young girls to become quiet princesses. I wish this book had existed when my daughter was a child. I might have been more capable of helping her with menstruation and other body changes in puberty. And in that moment that a mother both dreads and celebrates, when her daughter asks for independence, as Nene did at the end of the book: “Mom, can I walk to the library by myself?”

Mamapants hesitates (depicted simply as … in her dialog bubble) and then says: “Yes.”

Get Primahood: Magenta from Stacked Deck Press right here.

 

Rebecca

Rebecca Fish Ewan, founding editor/staff writer & cartoonist/layout artist at Plankton Press, creates Tiny Joys & GRAPH(feeties) zines. A walking professor/ mom/ writer/ poet/ cartoonist, she’s been published in Brevity, Landscape Architecture and Hip Mama, and is the author of a CNF book, A Land Between, and a memoir manuscript of cartoons and words about a childhood friendship cut short by murder.

 

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