Comics ‘n Things: Patricia Highsmith – mystery writer, lesbian and comic book artist

 
 

Over the past decade comics have gained respect, but in the 1940s although (or maybe because) the comics industry was the largest publication business in the United States they were generally determined childish and frivolous. Schenkar quotes Stan Lee stating that comics, “were the bottom of the cultural totem pole … No one had any respect for a fella who wrote comic books.” Highsmith took her shame in writing comics to an extreme – denying and erasing any reference to her work on comics from her personal history. Highsmith was a meticulous documentarian of her own life, systematically saving and filing away everything – every random scrap of paper she ever had an idea or note for a story on – except if it was related to comics. Every remnant of her comics career went in the trash.


Highsmith wrote regularly for “The Black Terror”

In the four parts titled “Alter Ego,” Schenkar details how writing for comics influenced Highsmith’s “serious” (prose) writing, not only in Highsmith’s common themes of double lives and secret identities – but also her pulpy, action-heavy style itself. Highsmith’s stories – which often center on an obsessive relationship between two men – were likewise fueled by her homosexuality. Her murderous protagonists, most suffering from some form of repression, expose our darker impulses. Highsmith viewed her own repression of homosexuality as nothing short of pathological:

“Until around thirty I was essentially like a glacier or like stone. I suppose I was ‘protecting’ myself. It was certainly tied up with the fact I had to conceal the most important emotional drives of myself completely. This is the tragedy of the conscience-stricken young homosexual, that he not only conceals his sex objectives, but conceals his humanity and natural warmth of heart as well.”

One wonders what Highsmith’s writing would have been like if she had been “out,” living her licentious 20s in today’s gay-embracing New York. No longer illicit, a certain intensity is gone. For some, the taboo of homosexuality is part of what makes it exciting. “Sexiness” is often thought of as “doing something wrong” and gay sex – up until recently, and still in many places and to many people is “wrong.” For all of heterosexuality’s benefits (anatomical compatibility) it can also seem a little… boring. Like animals mating for the purpose of procreation or something. Homosexuality, on the other hand, gets to stay perverse – an emotionally charged act happening for biologically inexplicable reasons. Homosexuality is a bit of a mystery and mystery and shame are sexy.

Highsmith was ashamed of writing for comics, but her problem was with comics’ reputation for being frivolous, not with the medium itself – the combination of drawing and writing. Highsmith was in fact an avid drawer and frequently submitted cartoons to the New Yorker (which suited her high brow tastes).


From “Miranda the Panda is on the Veranda.” Written by Doris Sanders. Cartoons by Patricia Highsmith.

If Highsmith lived today, not only might she be openly gay, but it’s also possible that she would write and draw graphic novels. She felt, as many cartoonists do, a unique creative ease with drawing, “…I haven’t the precision of intellect that a good writer needs, nor the sense of dignity when I want to call it up. But in drawing or painting I can always achieve this, if I want to, from a source uncorrupted, uncorrupted by pressure and other people’s opinions.” However, while it’s great to imagine what a Highsmith high brow graphic novel would look like, it’s the very “low brow” formulaic qualities of the genre comics she did write – the action-driven plots, the extreme personalities, the fixation on good vs. evil – that make Highsmith’s “serious” novels what they are.

This idea of a low brow/high brow mash-up is part of what initially appealed to me about drawing comics when I first started as a teenager in the ‘90s. At that time, American comics generally fell into two camps – G-rated newspaper gag strips and superhero comic books. R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman were the most well known of a small handful of people creating “adult” or “alternative” comics – but it was still very much uncharted territory. I loved the idea of “subverting” the medium and writing sexual, adult-themed books starring goofy, Disney-inspired cartoon characters. It’s wonderful that in recent years graphic novels have finally gotten the esteem they deserve and that there’s a huge influx of new and exciting works. But at the same time, now that graphic novels are prevalent and respected, that exhilarating feeling of subversion – of doing something others don’t understand or approve of – much like with increasingly accepted gay sex, is gone.

Homosexuality is still persecuted and comics are still looked down on, but this is changing and much of America is beginning to embrace and respect both. And of course this is good and necessary. But thinking of Highsmith’s great work it’s hard not to feel a bittersweet nostalgia as well. Highsmith’s life is easy to romanticize – the torrid lesbian affairs, the shame of her daily grind on comic books, both of these fueling her fervent novel writing at night.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, he posits that people are successful due to, among other things, unusual opportunities and the necessary number of hours to master a skill. One wonders also how much a writer’s drive correlates to his or her private anxiety. As Highsmith puts it, “Obsessions are the only things that matter. Perversion interests me most and is my guiding darkness.”

But while lesbianism and comics were two of the “secrets” that fueled Highsmith’s work, Schenkar’s biography details plenty other darknesses as well: Highsmith’s misanthropy, her bordering-on-incestuous relationship with her mother, her alcoholism, her inability to feel “in love” unless being rejected, and on and on. Humans are never lacking in internal angst, and though the specific secrets or causes for shame may change, there will always be something new to drive creativity. Highsmith wrote in her diary, “I never fall asleep at night without writhing in agony at least twice, remembering something which I imagine horrid that I have done that day, or the day before.”

Don’t we all?

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