Janelle Monáe: Q.U.E.E.N

The Ladyist has been dealing with some heavy stuff lately, so here’s a brighter subject.

Janelle Monae
Doesn’t get much brighter than this.

This, for the uninitiated, is Janelle Monáe. Sci-fi visionary. Dance icon. Robot angel. Q.U.E.E.N. Make-up model. Hair magician. R&B superhero. Stop me when this gets too much; she’s too much for words. Instead of words, watch this:

Then watch this:

And lastly, this:

The sharp-eyed among you will notice that I posted the same video three times. This is no mistake; this is to make sure you take in the magic and majesty that is Janelle Monáe. That one-footed slide she does is worth watching again on its own (don’t worry, it’ll be back).

That Letterman appearance was my introduction to this dynamo, and what an introduction it was. Packing the pizazz of James Brown into a tiny, dapper frame, she moves with the kind of fluidity that feels as game-changing as early Michael Jackson performances and writes songs that make Prince sit up and pay attention (he guested on her second album). All of that in one song? Incredible. And that’s before we even begin to talk about her voice.

But then you get to The ArchAndroid, and you realise ALL THAT was only a teeny tiny fragment of the beginning of an idea of what Janelle can do.

The Fritz Lang reference of the cover is the first hint that this isn’t your ordinary pop album.

The ArchAndroid is an epic, a stage musical in audio form. No sound is off limits to Janelle’s voracious creativity: she moves as lightly through dreamy classical-inspired suites (‘Suite II Overture) as she does through pop (‘Faster’), through torch ballads (‘Cold War’, ‘Neon Valley Heart’)  and robo-funk (‘Wondaland’). Each song moves into the next so smoothly that the transition between the nightmare funk of ‘Come Alive (The War of the Roses)’ and the hip-hop-inflected Julie Andrews numbers (‘Mushrooms & Roses’) seems natural and obvious.

Her second album, The Electric Lady, is less keen on the genre-hopping, but there are still flourishes of Bond themes, Herb Alpert, the score to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and brilliantly on-point android-radio interludes to spice up her super-tight funk/soul/groove explosion. That concision makes Electric Lady as less showy album, and it’s maybe not as game-changing as The ArchAndroid, but it’s an incredible record in its own right, and features an astounding array of guests like Erykah Badu, Solange, Esperanza Spalding, Miguel and, yeah, Prince.

Then there are her video clips…

Her clips are as perfectly considered and beautifully executed as her albums, which is no small feat. Janelle herself is a powerhouse, unafraid to show off her ability to sing, dance, rap and act, and she does so while being better dressed than I’ll be on the finest day of my life. They’re art projects, particularly ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’, which continues Janelle’s fascination with black and white contrast.

Even the label-mandated, Samsung-branded clip for ‘Electric Lady’ is more fun than it has any right to be.

Cold War, though, speaks to the human part of Janelle’s work, the heart that keeps this from all being an exercise in showing off.

That intimacy, that directness takes a different kind of strength than the flashy performer, or the would-be artist. It’s a whole other side to a woman who was already as multi-faceted as a gemstone. An artist. A designer. A model. A dancer. A composer. Oh, and a writer.

As she began on her debut EP, Metropolis: The Chase Suite, Janelle frames The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady with the story of Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android who just might be a kind of robot messiah. In the way of all good sci-fi (and genre) writers, Janelle uses Cindi and the android working class as a way of getting at race relations, gender relations, sexuality, privilege and a whole host of other ideas. Is that enough for her? Is it what. She’s spoken in the past about turning The ArchAndroid into a graphic novel, and a Broadway production. I for one would be there at the launch of either, given the chance.

I’ll leave you with a great piece by Charles Pulliam-Moore at NPR’s Code Switch blog. He mentioned Janelle in a piece on Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’, Wakanda, and Afrofuturism, and I think you should go read it in full. Here’s a snippet for you anyway, quoting comic book historian Adilifu Nama:

“Afrofuturism creates a space in which blackness is equated with futurism, cybernetics and super-science,” he explained. “All of these ideas undermine the trope of the urban, or the subservient, or the criminal.”

Not just any pop album. No ma’am.

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Janelle Monáe: Q.U.E.E.N

On ‘Being Me’

This post was supposed to be about Janelle Monae (don’t worry, that’s still coming), but something came up that I couldn’t ignore.

On Monday night, ABC’s Four Corners aired an episode called “Being Me“, which featured three transgender people talking about their identity and the obstacles they face in their efforts to be recognised as their true gender. In the intro, host Kerry O’Brien uses the words “courage” and “inspirational” to describe that struggle, and usually this would send me scurrying for the unsentimental hills, but this story is especially powerful, and personally relevant.

Of the three stories, one focused on transgender man Paige Elliott Phoenix and his very public coming-out on The X Factor; another introduced Jamie, a transgender woman in her teens, and dealt with her family’s legal battles to access hormone blockers without requiring a court order. Both Paige and Jamie’s stories are heartbreaking and critical to our conversations about gender. Paige’s estrangement from her mother and Jamie’s depression and suicidal ideation are trials we can save future transgender people from having to face if we share these stories, and help others to understand the very real nature of their gender dysphoria.

It was the story of Isabelle, age 11, that struck me hardest. An articulate and sweet child, Isabelle (then called Campbell) told her mother 18 months earlier that she didn’t feel like she was in the right body. Parents Andrew and Naomi weren’t expecting this revelation, but their response was the kind I think all transgender folk hope for. Supportive and caring, they’ve helped Isabelle in the transition into living as a girl, and she’s now seeing a paediatrician who works in the gender clinic of the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.

I can’t quite explain what it is about Isabelle’s story that hit me so hard, but the effect was unmistakeable: mid-bite into a huge sandwich, I was ugly-crying, heaving with sobs and trying to not inhale chunks of haloumi. Maybe it was the serious, matter-of-fact way that Isabelle discussed her dysphoria, or the idea that 30% of children like Isabelle attempt suicide if they don’t receive treatment. In truth, it was probably all of those things, plus a personal connection.

I first noticed the way stories of transgender women affected me when Against Me!’s lead singer came out as trans in an interview with Rolling Stone. I’d been a long-term fan of Tom Gabel, as he was known then, but my response to his revelation struck some chord deeper than that. She’s lived as a woman for the last two years, going by Laura Jane Grace, and put out the best album of her career.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues isn’t just a cracker of an album title; it’s a fierce and furious statement of identity, and a scathing attack on the people who reacted poorly to Laura’s transition. That it also happens to test the limits of her songwriting and take her into new genre territory is an excellent bonus that makes repeated listening even more necessary.

The title track, which opens the album, pulls no punches. As a taste of the abuse a transgender woman gets, it’s devastating: Laura doesn’t shy from slurs like “you’ve got no cunt in your strut”, but the fire-eyed intensity with which she responds is electrifying. On the other hand, ‘Unconditional Love’ drives home the loneliness and hardship of dealing with gender dysphoria, where even the support of a loving wife isn’t enough to get by. It’s a strange subject for a raucous rock song, but then, Grace has been writing Against Me! songs about anarchism, racial politics and the redundancy of protest songs, so nothing’s out of bounds.

The personal connection that binds these subjects is something I can’t dismiss, though it’s maybe not so clear as it might seem. At this stage in my life, I don’t consider myself transgender. As often and as intensely as identify with women, I don’t think that I am one of them. Nor, however, do I think of myself as particularly at home with the idea of being a man. I don’t mean that in the sense that masculine identity is nebulous and ill-defined (though it’s true, and relevant); I mean it in the sense that I don’t think of myself as a man any more than I think of myself as a woman. I don’t know exactly what I am, and I’m really at the beginning of working all that out.

What I cannot deny, though, is the way that stories like Isabelle’s and Laura’s affect me. I’m only relatively new to these ideas of gender, and I can’t be the only one struggling to recognise their identity in that way (plus the many, many other factors that influence it). Isabelle’s paediatrician, Michelle Telfer, notes that referrals have jumped from 1 in 2003 to hundreds now, and that such increases are occurring internationally. As she observes, it’s less likely that there are more transgender children, but more that there are greater numbers recognising their situation and seeking support. These sorts of stories are critical to help more of us understand our gender identity, and equally critical in legitimising the people grappling with dysphoria so they can get access to the medical care and support they need.

On ‘Being Me’

Kate Leth Appreciation Day 2014

Hey Internet, you’re a beautiful thing. Well, you can be; you can also be a cesspit of wrongheaded entitlement and unmerited keyboard ownership at times, but there are plenty of diamonds to be found, if you only know where to look.

I’ll readily admit that I didn’t (and often still don’t) know where I was looking. When I was looking for podcasts, I could Google “podcast women” and maybe find some decent suggestions, but even then I know that I’m missing out on heaps. I’ve found it even harder for comics: apart from studying the new releases each week via Comixology’s poorly-optimised mobile site, I wasn’t doing much to find the interesting and novel work that women are doing in the medium.

This is where the Internet showed off its brighter side. I’d been a fan of Kate Leth’s work for a short while before the Ladyist kicked in (I’m slow on the pickup with some things, OK?), but all I knew were a few of her excellent kate or die strips that appeared on Comics Alliance.

Straight to my heart, Kate.

I started to pay more attention to the person behind this amazing work, and Kate quickly completed the Ladyist Holy Trinity (alongside Neko Case and Kelly Sue DeConnick). Not only is she a passionate fan, she’s also worked in comics retail for years, so she knows how to channel that passion into exciting and unexpected recommendations.

What, that’s not enough for you? OK, try these on for size: a small sample of the staggering stuff I’ve been introduced to via Kate’s recommendations.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

 Less Than Live listeners will recognise this instantly, as Kate’s been talking about it for months now. I took a while to get to it, but I was already imploring people to read this before I was halfway through. Through the Woods is Emily’s first printed work, and the book itself demands to be read in the dead-tree format; not just because of the gorgeous paper-stock and embossed dust jacket, but for the slow-dread that comes with every slow turn of the page. I mean, you could flick through it and still enjoy Through the Woods, but taking it slowly emphasises the stony fear at the heart of each story (kinda like the clunky, slow door-opening cutscenes in the first Resident Evil game). Emily’s stories have a Brothers Grimm feel to them, reaching back to some doomy ancient folklore as she tells of menacing woods, ghosts and dismemberment. She’s an incredible horror writer, wrapping threads of panic through each story until you realise you’re wrapped up tight on the final page. Her art is the star, though, and another argument for the print edition. Her style often resembles old European woodcuts, with ominous inks and spilled-blood reds seeping across each page. Her ghosts are unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere, and the body horror of the collection’s final story still has me squirming.

Babs Tarr

How could you not love Babs, seriously?

Like a whole lot of people, I first heard about Babs Tarr when DC announced her as part of the new creative team taking over Batgirl and released a picture of the yellow-booted costume redesign that set the internet on fire. When Kate interviewed her on Less Than Live, they talked about Babs’s background as an artist, particularly her Tumblr-famous biker-style redesigns of Sailor Moon. Her style taps into fashion with far greater panache than so much of mainstream comics art, with plenty of rosy-cheeked ladies dressed fantastically and ready to kick butt! She also brings a very different approach to drawing women’s faces, which often have a limited range; her Barbara Gordon is cartoonish and broad in some ways, but Babs does wonders with her linework in providing real complexity to Batgirl’s expressions. In her chat with Kate, she talked a bit about the challenges of moving from standalone images to sequential art with the help of co-writer Cameron Stewart. I love the tone of her work, and I’m really excited to see how her work evolves over the course of her run on Batgirl!

Lumberjanes, by Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson and Brooke A. Allen

Lumberjanes #1 (image via publisher Boom! Comics)

Comics about summer camp do not sound inherently awesome. Mix in three-eyed foxes, shape-shifting bear-women and a bunch of kick-ass girls who say things like “What in the Joan Jett are you doing?”, though, and you have my attention.

Lumberjanes manages to be hilarious, silly and tense within the same issue. Ripley, Molly, Mal, Jo and April have great chemistry, and are just as likely to face the challenges of in-group teenage crushes as they are a three-eyed river monster (that’s just issue #2).

Being a summer camp, the girls get Scouts-like badges, though these badges (designed by Kate) aren’t exactly standard issue. So far, they’ve earned the Pungeon Master, Naval Gauging and Up All Night badges, just to name a few. And all that goes on while they try and figure out the mysterious animals and mythical goings-on around their camp.

Lumberjanes is published by Boom! comics, who’ve become an unlikely source for amazing all ages books, including the Adventure Time and personal favourite Bee and Puppycat. Don’t let the all-ages tag put you off, though; this is necessary reading for anyone who likes the idea of awesome, adventuring girls (which really should be everyone reading this). Friendship to the max!

She-Hulk

Jennifer Walters is an under-appreciated force in the Marvel Universe, and not just because she can get big and green like her cousin. She’s a gifted lawyer as well as an intergalactically-regarded smasher of things, but she doesn’t always get the treatment she deserves, often pulled into team line-ups as a heavy-hitter without much regard for her as a character. Dan Slott’s run from a few years back is a personal favourite, but the pairing of artist Javier Pulido and Thunderbolts writer Charles Soule seemed like a strange choice for Jen. Pulido’s flat art style didn’t seem like an obvious fit, and I wasn’t familiar with Soule’s work, so I hadn’t jumped in.

I was so wrong to hesitate. Soule’s version of She-Hulk is a great balance of spandex-clad clobbering and courtroom drama, with each somehow complementing rather than undermining the other. Pulido’s art turned out to be an incredible choice — distinctive, sure, and not always capital-P perfect like Marvel usually pumps out, but his flat style makes Jen feel like a hero from a bygone era, recalling the (terrible) animation of cartoons like Mighty Mouse to surprisingly lovely effect.

The saddest part is that the Soule/Pulido run on She-Hulk only has a few more issues due to decisions by Marvel HQ (who obviously haven’t read the sternly worded letter I’ve been meaning to send them), so please buy the next couple (or at least spring for the trade paperback when it comes out)to show Marvel that we still need Jen Walters in print.

You’re awesome.

That’s just a few of Kate’s amazing recommendations. Follow her on Twitter (@kateleth) to catch some of these suggestions first-hand, and to eavesdrop on her awesome friendship with other amazing comic creators like Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarksy, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. And of course, you should listen to her podcast, Less than Live, which is definitely Ladyist-approved. Seriously, every episode of the podcast is packed with great things to read, especially when Kate has an equally interesting guest on (like Babs, or Kevin Wada, who drew the She-Hulk cover above). And please, tell us about the ways you find new stuff: is it a friend, or a celebrity, or a particular site? Let everyone know in the comments below!

Kate Leth Appreciation Day 2014