If the name of the city wasn't mentioned several times in The Pervert, a new graphic memoir written by Michelle Perez and drawn by Remy Boydell, you'd be forgiven for not noticing that the comic is set in and around Seattle.
It's not that Boydell's artwork lacks specificity. Once you know that The Pervert is based out of this city, you'll notice little flashes of Seattle everywhere: that swath of I5 where gorgeous green forest envelopes generic highway architecture, elevating the scenery into something weird and otherworldly; the street corner that looks summoned from 1970s Los Angeles; the wealthy enclaves surrounding Puget Sound. The characters take trips to Portland and shop at Powell's and stay down the street at the cheap McMenamin's hotel with European-style shared bathrooms.
But this isn't the Seattle where tourists or film crews dwell. It's everyday Seattle, far away from the Space Needle and the Pike Place Market and downtown Fremont. These are generic apartments where schlubby widowed men live. These are benches where kids hang out because they don't want to - or can't - go home. These are decrepit houses in neighborhoods that somehow haven't yet been flipped into gentrified tech enclaves. It's not so much ugly and forgotten Seattle as it is anonymous Seattle - the part of the city that shuns both fame and notoriety. People here want to be left alone, even forgotten.
"My name doesn't really matter," the protagonist of The Pervert tells the reader. "I think I'm sorta embracing a philosophy where I don't value my life as much anymore."
Seattle, for this young woman, is a kind of limbo, a place to be anonymous and, preferably, forgotten. It's heartbreaking stuff, but she has a different perspective on it: as a sex worker, she sees herself as a martyr for love: "I put more of that love into others. So whatever name I have doesn't matter. I feel love, so I am love. Or something."
The protagonist is a trans girl, and she alternates between bad-paying manual labor jobs and prostitution. She fucks men and she fucks women. Sometimes, for extra, she'll fuck men and women at the same time. People don't really see her as she is; they see her as they want to see her, and she reflects back that perception for money. Sometimes she keeps her breasts bound and hidden under a shirt. Sometimes she fucks clients; sometimes they fuck her.
Ultimately, she'd like to get gender reassignment therapy. Her boss, a friendly Canadian who resembles the children's book character Clifford the Big Red Dog, asks her "do you have a vagina?"
"Nah," she replies, "That's like 40,000 dollars last I checked. Might be less now. Lot of people go to Thailand. But, like, you gotta go to the great guy."
But she's begun the process by taking hormones. A friend asks over burgers, "How far along are you, then?"
She holds out her hand: "Here touch this shit right here yeah."
The friend touches her skin and exclaims, "oh wow, that's soft as heck."
She replies, "Yeah. Same for my dick. It's like it's trying to be pussy really bad…"
Parts of The Pervert were published in Brandon Graham's splendid Island anthology, though enough of the book is new that even readers who have previously encountered Boydell and Perez's work will be experiencing The Pervert for the first time.
It's told in a series of disconnected vignettes, and the characters are drawn as anthropomorphic cats and dogs. Boydell cites the largely forgotten 80s sex comic Omaha the Cat Dancer as an influence, and indeed the shadows of Omaha creators Reed Waller and Kate Worley fall squarely over the book. The characters are cute, and their facial expressions are spare enough that it's easy for audiences to fill the characters with their own emotions. Even readers who have never read or don't enjoy funny-animal comics will likely be able to read The Pervert without getting hung up on the furriness of the characters.
Throughout The Pervert, Perez demonstrates a knack for naturalistic dialogue. These characters don't spout exposition or spray their inner lives everywhere. You get the sense that they have an interiority that they don't share with anyone. They sound like people who have lived every minute of their own lives - from the 62 year-old closeted man who refuses to accept his own sexuality to the teenagers who are already exhausted at being emotionally strip-mined by grownup predators. Everyone is world-weary, but they're not grim or gritty. They wake up in the morning and do what they have to, just like everyone else.
The trans experience as portrayed in The Pervert is relentlessly, achingly physical. To be trans means that everyone has feelings about your body. They're disgusted by it, or they're attracted to it, or both. The protagonist minds her own business walking down the street, and suddenly she's being screamed at on the street by men who go out of their way to harass her. Once, she fights back and, in high heels and a miniskirt, smacks the everloving shit out of a harasser. It's not portrayed as a victory, though: even though the harasser has to beg for mercy, our protagonist's body is bruised and bloody. Pain is a communal experience. In order to be truly felt, it has to be shared.
And so does love. And sex. And hate.
What Boydell and Perez have done with The Pervert is really quite remarkable: they've made a comic that feels as personal and as intimate as a hand-folded zine, but they've done so with the confidence and the high production values of a professionally published graphic novel. Boydell's hand-painted artwork is lush and moody and sometimes you feel like you can take a long swim in it. Perez's script is as real as conversations you hear in passing on the street. These are stories you might find if you wander long enough around the forgotten, forgettable parts of Seattle.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, 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