True love isn’t usually associated with minimalism. It isn’t usually associated with little animal heads, either, and yet Montreal artist Diane “Obom” Obomsawin manages to make all three work together just splendidly in her graphic novel On Loving Women. It’s more like a graphic collection of short stories, actually: Obomsawin illustrates a dozen or so different women’s accounts of how they first fell in love with other women, or girls — all of whom have, you guessed it, little animal heads.
The cover features a classical tableau of two lovers reclining on a Grecian bed — except they both have dog heads, and the cherub who hovers above is a doggie cherub. Lesbians who affect ducktail hairdos have duck faces. When a young rabbit, knock-kneed on her visit to a real lesbian bar, is approached by a regular, the pick-up artist knows just what to say: “You’ve got nice ears!”
Sometimes the animal features don’t have much to do with the narrative. Sometimes, when emotions get high, the animal features almost seem to fade away. When adolescent Diane glimpses a scene from the 1931 lesbian classic Mädchen in Uniform on late-night TV, the effect is so seismic that her comical little dog head literally vanishes: We see only two eyes in blackness as she sits in the dark, wondering. (Alas, when she gathers her courage to turn the TV back on, Mädchen has been superseded by footage of a circus elephant doing tricks — and so her sexual awakening is put on hold.)
But there’s no point in drawing cute little animal heads without milking the comedy for all you’ve got, and Obomsawin’s no miser. Deer canoodle in a photo booth, puppies ride mopeds, a tiny bird serenades her boar-headed teacher on the trumpet. Even Zorro, Flash Gordon and Wonder Woman make appearances, the latter trying out her magic lasso on a giant carrot. One story that might well have inspired the whole collection features a little deer, ears sticking out akimbo, who’s crushing on a horse-faced girl in her class. Every day she presents her perplexed inamorata with a new drawing of a horse. Years later, she reflects, “All the women I’ve ever loved have horse faces.” And, as the accompanying illustration shows, indeed they do.
If Obomsawin’s style weren’t so pitch-perfect for her topic, her bestiary might start to feel twee. Love is serious business, after all, and never more so than when you’re a 13-year-old with a crush on your camp counselor. But love, especially first love, also has qualities that are perfectly suited to human/animal hybrids: It’s both darling and surreal.
Often, of course, it’s just surreal — particularly when parents get involved. When teenage Marie finds a girlfriend — quite an achievement for a high-school lesbian — her mother sends her away to live with a family across the country, hoping to cure her. Then Marie finds a girlfriend at her new school and her mother descends, an avenging demon, to inform the principal that her daughter is a lesbian and take Marie on an excruciating visit to a gynecologist. (“Honestly, ma’am!” says the exasperated doc, a mustachioed fox.) The tale concludes with Mom shipping the heroine off to yet another strange city to live.
In other hands this tale might become mawkish, or at least be played for its contrast with the sweeter ones. But an unshakeable cool suffuses Obomsawin’s every line, denying drama. She situates each story in the same hushed, largely vacant space, one that’s open to the quietest emotions. Like adolescence itself, this land is both mysterious and full of endless possibilities. She doesn’t push toward the highs and lows, but leaves her reader to find them. Or, rather, she creates a world where they can be found.