At what point does the taboo become normalized, even mundane? What power does art have in this process? These are questions to ponder over when reading Hazel Newlevant’s latest autobiographical comic Sugar Town; an expanded yet more focused version of the work and modern queer themes Newlevant was exploring in her Ignatz Award-winning minicomic Tender Hearted.
Sugar Town is a graphic novella-length story detailing the beginnings of Hazel’s romantic relationship with Argent, an older woman who works as a dominatrix. Argent’s line of work being only one of the romantic complications that needs to be overcome in the course of the narrative. Hazel must grapple with her own insecurities in fully pursuing this, her first openly homosexual relationship, while also balancing the fact that she is simultaneously in an open relationship with her boyfriend Gregor.
The circumstances are further exacerbated by the fact that her encounter with Argent takes place in Portland where Hazel is only visiting, while Gregor is more fully a part of her life back home in New York. What is striking is that none of this is played for melodrama. Hazel is conflicted, not out of any arbitrary sense of what is morally right or wrong, but from a need to respect and care for the feelings of both her partners.
There is no hand-wringing over whether what she is doing is a societal transgression. Making the largest obstacle that Hazel must surmount in the course of the story her difficulty in recording a mix tape for Argent that fully expresses her feelings for her.
Though this story is non-fiction, in presenting such a narrative Newlevant achieves more than simply documenting an incident in her life. She shows us a world in which a bi-sexual, openly polyamorous relationship is not only of benefit to the person in the center, but also enriching to all of the individual partners.
In an early scene Argent remarks on her desire to hold dinner parties with all her lovers as well as their lovers. This line speaks to some of what is likely motivating Hazel as well. The desire for a comfortable, happy, community-filled life is something shared by all kinds of people of almost all walks of life. However, for the characters this story focuses on, that goal is reached by eschewing traditional moral values. This intersection of the mundane pleasures of life with what some consider the more transgressive ones is best exemplified in a later sequence when after Argent bakes a small birthday cake for Hazel, she flogs her on the kitchen floor, only to have the couple end the night watching cooking shows on the couch. All these layers of reality exist at the same time layered on top of one another, sweeting the totality of Hazel’s romantic life.
This sweetness, evoked right from the title, extends into all aspects of the work. While Newlevant’s earlier works Tender Hearted, If This Be Sin, and No It U Lover showcased the strong hand in rendering figures and environments in her amalgam 2010’s polished American Indie Comics style, in Sugar Town she shifts from the softer more organic watercolor style of her older comics to sharper and more electric digital coloring. The way in which color is deployed retains many of the same design choices as her previous work, but the pop of the digital colors, along with the way they are reproduced on the page, gives this book a look and feel that obfuscates its self-published identity.
The adorable characters all sparkle and shine in neon pinks and turquoises. Everyone is flush with life and with color. The word balloons are never black text on white, but colored to complement the scene. Even the more muted autumnal tones feel vibrant. In taking on the trappings of a more mainstream published comic, everything about the art invites the reader to consume the work in the same unguarded manner. Leaving the opportunity for Newlevant’s message to slip in undetected.
The work then presents a sugary exterior but holds an interior full of substance. The reader may be drawn in by the sheen of the art and smiles on the fashionable character’s faces, but in delving deeper they can discover people who live lives that are both outside the norm yet motivated by fundamental human desires. This is Newlevant’s victory. Merging her own increasingly polished art with the relatability of slice-of-life autobio comics as a vector to show some readers the humanity in a way of living they may have previously written off, and for others a way of living the may have previously only dreamed was possible.
Hazel Newlevant (W/A) • Self-published, $10.00
Sugar Town is available to buy online here.
Review by Robin Enrico