In an earlier post, I said I intended to highlight some of the webcomics which I think are good enough for you to spend time reading. And, since they say you should lead with your best shot, the first one I'm going to flag up is Simply Sarah by Sarah Skye, a comic which has been at the top of my favourites list for a couple of years now.
So, what's it about? Well, at the most obvious level it's a comic about two girls in a lesbian relationship but, having said that, I really can't tell you any more without also telling you what it's not.
So, here goes: Simply Sarah is not a tawdry erotic comic with graphic close-ups of "hawt" girl-on-girl action; neither is it a hopelessly idealised romance in which the main characters spend pages gazing into each other's eyes and whispering sweet nothings because, after all, no one else could possibly understand what they're going through; but, most importantly since this sub-genre seems to be everywhere just now, it is most definitely not a manga-styled yuri comic with pre-teen heroines discovering their mutual attraction through a series of improbably wild and wacky adventures. Nope - there's not even a whiff of a cloyingly cute or maniacally hyperactive chibi!
So, if seeing the words "lesbian" and "comic" in the same sentence makes you think of any of those, then put your preconceptions aside and prepare to be enlightened!
Simply Sarah is the story of a teenage girl coping with life, adolescence and the onset of adulthood. She goes to school, sits exams, finds first love, parties, confronts bullies, makes and loses friends and wants to get away from her quarrelling parents. Any of that sound familiar? Of course it does. They're the kind of issues we all face when growing up, irrespective of gender or sexual orientation.
For me, that is one of the real strengths of this comic. The excellent writing ensures that the main character Sarah is not presented as a lesbian first and a person second. She is a person first, as real and as strong, as shy, caring, confused and vulnerable as anyone you know in real life. Yes, being a lesbian does create certain additional issues but these are not presented in the form of an aggressive misandristic or LGBT agenda.
By focusing on Sarah's feelings, even issues such as parental acceptance are dealt with in a way that anyone can identify with. Many, many teenagers - gay and straight - have had the experience of trying to explain the attraction of a partner deemed unacceptable by their parents. Maybe they were the wrong colour, the wrong background, the wrong age, the wrong religion ... Parental acceptance is obviously a major issue for gays and lesbians but, by keeping the focus on the personal rather than the political, Simply Sarah allows us all to relate to the characters' dilemma.
And, of course, it is so very often the characters which make the difference between a passable story and a great one. This, then, is a great one!
The characters are superbly drawn - all different and yet all believable. Just like you, me and all the people we know in real life. Sarah herself is shy but growing in self-confidence, while Janey, the object of her affections, is more forthright and self-assured (if occasionally a little self-centred). Then there's Dawn, Sarah's dowdy but inquisitive friend; Gerry, the tomboyish artist who loves horses; Stacey, the irredeemably envious and resentful school bully; and Leo, the wild-child wannabe punk-rocker. Each one has a personality of her own and convinces us that she has a life beyond the pages of the comic.
If there is a criticism to be made of the cast, it's that it contains very few male characters and that those there are, almost without exception, are distinctly unsympathetic. The few teenage males in the story are mostly jerks (and, in one case, a would-be rapist) while Sarah's father, the only adult male of any importance, is abusive to his wife, usually verbally but occasionally resorting to physical violence too. There's nothing especially wrong with these characterisations (most of us know someone who would fit at least one of those descriptions!) but, in an age when the male-dominated mainstream media is so frequently criticised for its lack of positive female characters, the tendency to exclude or stereotype either sex is something I believe indy creators in particular need to guard against.
The artwork in Simply Sarah is another of its strong points. The colouring on one or two pages is perhaps a little too vivid, but this isn't something that's serious enough or happens often enough to detract from the overall presentation. The page composition is clear and never leaves the reader wondering which panel to read next. The real selling point, however, is Sarah Skye's linework which is a joy, complementing the story perfectly.
In many ways the simple, uncluttered style reminds me of the artwork in 1960s girls' comics like Bunty or Judy (they were my sister's, I swear!) or the illustrations in an Enid Blyton novel (yes, they were mine!) In the early chapters particularly, when the girls are in their school uniforms, I had no difficulty imagining them creeping around the darkened corridors of a 1950s boarding school, solving mysteries and raiding tuck-boxes by torch light.
And that, I think, is a large part of what makes this comic shine! The sensitive and heartfelt writing ensures that we recognise the very real, contemporary problems these girls are having to face, but the echoes of times past which are evoked by the artwork add to the story and its characters an air of innocence which makes us feel for them too. We want to protect them and tell them that, no matter what the world may throw at them, it'll be okay; that, as long as they love each other and hold true to that, they can cope with anything.
Because, male or female, gay or straight, that's what we all want to believe about our own relationships. Isn't it?