The Seattle-area cartoonist behind Grab Back Comics, an industrious woman using the pseudonym “Erma Blood,” says that her site was born in those early, helpless days just after the 2016 presidential election. Blood took her wife on a vacation to celebrate their first wedding anniversary “and it was very sweet,” she says. “But my experience of the coverage of sexual assaults and harassment during the election had really taken a toll.”
The fact that a man who openly bragged about committing sexual assault was now the president of the United States was too much for her. “It felt like it really shut me down,” Blood explains. Try as she might to enjoy her bride and her vacation, “I just didn’t feel like I was engaging in the way that I wanted to.”
During the trip, Blood dreamed of the website that would become Grab Back Comics — a place where cartoonists could share stories and resources on the topic of sexual assault. Once she got back, she set about building her dream on a Wordpress site. Blood, a research scientist, started to link to pre-existing comics about consent, assault, and recovery. Not so many years ago, Blood says, those comics tended to be educational, and they focused “very heavily on women, and particularly on middle-class white women.” But recently, she’s pleased to discover that “conversations around all of these topics of consent and sexual assault and child abuse have expanded to include all genders.”
Not long after the site launched, Northwestern cartoonists started to ask Blood if they could contribute their strips to the project. In the months, since, Grab Back Comics has become an impressive storing house of comics on a subject that, not fifty years ago, would have been too taboo to discuss in public. And Blood just published a print anthology collecting some of the best work from the site.
In hand, Grab Back Comics: Acts of Love and Resistance is a beautifuly designed book. Its cover, featuring a snarling hot-pink poodle exploding out of a wall of anxious squiggles, would not be out of place in the Olympia Riot Grrrl punk scene that helped Blood find her voice. It looks like a powerful object, one which demands your attention. (Though the book is smaller than standard comic-size, and some of the print is a bit hard to read at that diminished scale; a couple of strips are downright unreadable in parts due to the scaled down hand lettering.)
The comics in Grab Back range from an account of workplace sexual harassment to a biographical account of a rape at knifepoint to an investigation of the way people commonly misunderstand consent. Some of the contributions, like an explainer broadside by Ellen Forney on how to use your voice in self-defense, have previously been published elsewhere. Together, they form a brief survey of the sorts of comics you’ll find on the site — a compelling blend of personal experience and education and manifesto.
Some of the comics in Grab Back test the comics medium, exploring the idea of how to tell a story using the juxtaposition of words and pictures without common American tropes like word balloons and captions. Catherine Alice Michaelis’s “Dressing for Success” is laid out like those paper doll cutouts you can find in magazines for kids. Above a drawing of a bra, she writes, “I will not harness myself so you can feel safe from my sexuality.” Then, around a drawing of a t-shirt: “I deserve to be comfortable. If you can see my nipples stop staring.”
The best work in Grab Back does just what Michaelis does there: changes the conversation around assault so it’s not about victimizer and victimized. Most of us comprehend the fact that it’s not a person’s fault if they’re stared at, or grabbed, or raped. But our language and our culture still blames the victim. A strip by Nicole J. Georges, “I Had a Crush on My Rapist,” tackles complex issues of consent in same-sex dating by transforming the characters into adorable cartoon dogs. Georges' smart cartooning is absolutely disarming, and upends the reader’s expectations.
Maybe this is why Blood’s subconscious gravitated toward the comics medium for her project in the first place. While first-person prose accounts can be important educational tools because they puts the reader directly into the author’s head, comics require us to be both witness and participant in a very provocative way.
As readers, we watch Georges' dogs rolling around playfully in bed and the part of us that grew up with anthropomorphic cartoon characters feel a very deep-seated joy in their romping. So when things go wrong (“I said not now,” the dachshund in horn-rimmed glasses says, and the bull terrier responds “but I want to” and paws, literally, at her breasts) our response is visceral. The understanding we feel as readers of cartoons — that everything will be okay, that every act of violence has a punchline to it — is broken. This is not just empathy; these comics are rewiring our brains. They’re rewriting the world into something better.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant