Let me tell you what Left-Handed Sophie (Beehive Comics) is like before I tell you what it is: The R. Crumb generation of underground comix, early-nineties self-published zines, graf art, modern art-first minicomics, the female character design work of Vaughan and Mark Bode and, in certain panels, manga. Whether these are cartoonist Phonzie Davis’ actual influences or not, they’re what his work seems to reflect, although that may be in the eye of this beholder; similarly, hip hop and Hanna Barbera and a reverence for 1970s pop aesthetic may not be influences Davis himself would claim, even if his work fairly radiates them.
As to what it is, it’s the incredibly dense first issue (or, as the cover proclaims, “furst ishew”) of Davis’ black-and-white comic book series about “a young albino woman corrupted by drug-trafficking and the occult.” The cover helpfully lists all the players, but just who exactly they all are and how they relate to one another and fit into the story being told isn’t quite as clear, and Davis’ highly idiosyncratic story-telling can make it a bit difficult for a reader to get his bearings.
The story opens with young Sophie getting harassed in the school cafeteria, and getting in a couple-page fight with her tormenter. We cut to some villainous types doing some fairly villain-y type things while talking about turf and crime war. Sophie is adopted by foster parents Dr. and Betty Savage, he a bearded professor with Little Orphan Annie eyes, a one-time member of a Johnny Quest-like adventure troupe, she a long-haired, bespectacled vixen, and meets her new little sister Heidi, who rocks an eye patch.
The criminal types reveal to the reader that Sophie may, in fact, be the messiah. There’s also a character named Pipp who seems to be a Muppet with huge, ropey-dreads, and is apparently also maybe a superhero of some kind. A birthday party is attended. Sophie gets interested in “vodou.”
Davis’ art is flat, reveling in its two-dimensionality, and its full of filigree, the pages each laid out a bit more like canvases (or, perhaps, the back of a spiral ring notebook during a particularly boring class) than comics pages. The paths the eyes are asked to take are oftentimes quite circuitous, but well-marked, so one never gets completely lost.
It’s a challenging book to read, but only because it’s so visual. His writing is a ton of fun to read, although I suspect it will be a harder sell to more readers than his art is. Almost all of the characters speak in what read like rap lyrics, minus the rhyming and rhythm, and Davis adopts such phonetic, hip hop spellings, the lettering reflecting inflections, as “Fareel” for “for real”, “kew tie” for “cutie,” “haiya” for “hair,” and so on.
It’s definitely not an all-tastes work, just as it’s definitely not all-ages. There’s a fair degree of nudity in here, and sex acts that wouldn’t make it past the MPAA without earning an NC-17, although it’s not presented as pornographic, and Davis carefully depicts the actual coupling in long shots or off-panel, but only just. But such imagery, and the tons of swearing and intentionally misspelled N-bombs will certainly repel some readers.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that; there’s little percentage in trying to please everyone, and if an artist can please himself, chances are he’ll please a whole bunch of others as well. I’ve followed Davis’ minicomics with great interest the last few years, and am quite glad to see his work getting stronger and stronger and sharper and sharper. One of the first times I saw one of his self-published minicomics, I thought to myself he’d be a force to reckon with someday.
It looks like it’s time to start reckoning with him.