For Your Inner Comix Grrrl: Megan Kelso’s “Queen of the Black Black”

by Erina Davidson

I’m one of those girls who wish they’d been born earlier so they could’ve attended the Evergreen State College during the early ‘90s and spent their days xeroxing zines and comics at their lame part time jobs. But now I’m a Generation Z college student on the east coast, reading Jeffrey Brown and Lynda Barry and spending too much time (and money) at coffee shops. (Sometimes, I sit at a local Barnes and Noble and pretend to be drawing for a Fantagraphics deadline. It’s sad.) 

This is probably why I instantly clicked with Megan Kelso’s Queen of the Black Black.

Queen of the Black Black is a 160 page collection of short stories and strips from Kelso’s minicomic Girlhero, which she drew between 1993 and 1998. She went from DIY cartoonist and self-publisher to being serialized in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. She currently has three books published by Fantagraphics, including the Ignatz Award-winning Artichoke Tales. This particular book is a chronicle of Kelso’s early days as a riot grrrl cartoonist and developing artist; each short story experiments with comic techniques, such as the visual interpretation of ‘music’, lettering methods, and drawing tools. I’m particularly excited by the list in the back of the book, where Kelso explains what elements she juggled with in each short story.

Above: From the story, “Frozen Angel”

Content wise, Queen of the Black Black explores intimate daily life moments (“The Daddy Mask”, “Her Peas and Queues”, “Whistle & Queenie”), fantasy dream worlds (“Pennyroyal Tea”, “Queen of the Black Black”), and a hazy ground between the two realms. Kelso brings in dark and bitter elements into her stories to create ‘sweet ‘n salty’ fairy tales that are at times uncomfortably true to real life. 

Her ambitious drawing and lettering style is at times reminiscent of Seiichi Hayashi’s Red-Colored Elegy (highly recommended, by the way). The panels don’t feel limiting to Kelso’s creativity and the dialogue goes beyond the speech bubble to be integrated with the graphics. The harmony of words and illustration strengthen Kelso’s voice as a narrator of stories that appeal to women of all ages. That said, most of the stories in Queen of the Black Black contain adult themes, particularly of the sexual nature. The artichoke people in “Pennyroyal Tea” face an unplanned pregnancy. In “The Daddy Mask”, young Kaia wanders around her parents’ ‘adult’ party and tries alcohol. 

This collection of short stories is a fantastic starting point for those of you who still view comics as Marvel/DC, or as ‘kiddie’ entertainment. (Shame!!) While playing with fantasy elements we all loved reading as little kids, Kelso incorporates today’s real life issues – STDs, pregnancy, being broke, infidelity – into her comics. Raw, yet refined, Queen of the Black Black is an enjoyable, meaty read that left me pumped to experiment with my own comics style. Back to the coffee shop I go!

Visit Megan Kelso’s website to see more of her comics and drawings.

Read Megan’s NY Times series, “Watergate Sue” :

An in-depth interview with Fantagraphics:

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