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‘Blueprints for a Forward-Dawning Futurity’: Brynjar Åbel Banlien’s Strîmb Life (2009) and Strîmb Living – 5 Years with Oskar (2011) by Mihaela Precup

30 May

‘“I really do believe

future generations can

live without the in-

tervals of anxious

fear we know between our

bouts and strolls of

ecstasy.”’

James Schuyler

(qtd. in José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia)

The first two books of comics published by Norwegian dancer, choreographer, and comic book artist Brynjar Åbel Bandlien are also the first two and only comics published in Romania that address queer topics.[1] The author embarked on the doubly daunting task of using a medium that was new for him (i.e. comics) and representing a way of living (that he calls strîmb)[2] whose visual presence in Romania is quite scarce. Bandlien’s two fictional autobiographies, Strîmb Life (2009) and Strîmb Living – 5 Years with Oskar (2011), are related attempts to provide a view of what it means to be living a strîmb life, although more often than not they are simply about living a happy life. These two books are welcome interventions in a space of almost complete silence and everyday invisibility, but they are (thankfully) neither didactic to-do lists meant to guide us through the hours and days of a queer life, nor are they exhaustive exercises in defining queerness.

Queering the Everyday in Bucharest and Elsewhere: Strîmb Life (2009)

Bandlien’s first comic book, Strîmb Life, works really well to convey a sense of the mundanely extraordinary that is his everyday life in Bucharest and elsewhere with his partner, Manuel Pelmuş. In Romanian, strîmb translates as ”bent,” but it is definitely not a familiar term for ”queer,” perhaps because there is no generally used familiar term for ”queer” in Romanian that is not offensive. The first queer (or strîmb) comic book published in Romania is thus square-ish, slim, black-and-white, and has a peephole carved in the front cover (Fig. 1). The book looks strangely unassuming for such an achievement.

Fig. 1. Two-part cover of Strîmb Life, showing Brynjar and Manuel through a peephole.

Fig. 1. Two-part cover of Strîmb Life, showing Brynjar and Manuel through a peephole.

Through that important peephole in the cover of Strîmb Life, the reader is invited to become a voyeur in possession of a rare gift of visibility: the everyday life of a gay couple, a fairly absent image in contemporary Romania. Divided thematically into a few chapters, the book contains one-page stories with the same panel structure (8 panels plus a round one in the middle, reproducing the peephole on the cover). Two panels inevitably show the two male protagonists asleep, in the morning and at night, perhaps to indicate the same soothing routine in which this couple contentedly basks day after day.

The couple displays a quiet satisfaction with the little repetitions of life, also expressed by their unchanging body postures. Brynjar is always shown casually lying back, hands behind his head, and Manuel is always cross-legged, his Mac on his lap. Irrespective of the activity they are engaged in (Fig. 2)[3], their life is permanently tethered to the central panel, going round it at a steady pace, grounded by the harmony of the ‘home strîmb home’ that the two men have managed to build. In this way, it appears that the apparent “peephole” suggested by the book cover is slowly turning out to be less a gateway to the arcana of homosexuality and more a formal device meant to suggest the separation of the happy couple from the outside world, whose intrusions are not always welcome.

Fig. 2. The first page of Strîmb Life, introducing the two main characters, Brynjar and Manuel.

Fig. 2. The first page of Strîmb Life, introducing the two main characters, Brynjar and Manuel.

The “outside” of Bucharest is, however, for most of the time, an extension of the couple’s indoor life, especially when they go to places (such as the Contemporary National Dance Center, The French Institute, The Goethe Institute, underground club Ota, the Contemporary National Art Museum) populated by friends and likeminded people.

The everyday activities of this strîmb couple inside the home are those of any couple: chatting about the events of the day, looking out the window to observe the latest in Bucharest fashion, taking out the trash, having sex (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. 'Spoons,' 'missionary style,' 'doggy style,' '69,' 'ABBA (back to back),' 'hybernation.'

Fig. 3. ‘Spoons,’ ‘missionary style,’ ‘doggy style,’ ’69,’ ‘ABBA (back to back),’ ‘hybernation.’

The peephole closes when it comes to their carefully listed sexual positions; darkness and a sheet cover the couple’s activities, the labels handwritten in the bookcase above the bed and the wavy line of the bedclothes the only clues for the reader’s imagination. There is even a footnote explaining the fifth position, boasting a private name, ABBA (‘back to back’), although the wavy line does not change significantly and the reader is left scratching her head and, much like in the famous drawing from Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, wondering whether that particular panel contains the drawing of a hat or an elephant inside a boa constrictor.

The narrative of this enviable cohabitation is rarely punctured by conflict, and whenever that happens, the source is never dissension within the couple’s ranks: it is the outside world, manifesting itself, say, as the stray dogs of Bucharest or the made-up drama of “GeorgeMichaelJackson,” a street kid the couple “adopts” after pregnancy predictably fails to follow sex. However, little shakes the harmony of this couple, whose routine is joyfully accepted and peacefully enacted irrespective of geographical location (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Snapshots of Brynjar and Manuel’s travels through Berlin, Lisbon, Istanbul, Tangier, New York, and Chişinău.

Fig. 4. Snapshots of Brynjar and Manuel’s travels through Berlin, Lisbon, Istanbul, Tangier, New York, and Chişinău.

Strîmb Life is keen on showing that love is indeed the belief in repetition, the belief that the beloved will come again, as queer theorist Peggy Phelan was saying in Mourning Sex, where she also combined autobiography, biography, and fiction. It is a combination of genres that works well in Strîmb Life, in support of the concluding statement issued from the peephole/bubble the Brynjar character says to his partner on the last page, ‘I never get bored with you’ (Fig. 5).[4]

Fig. 5. The last page of Strîmb Life.

Fig. 5. The last page of Strîmb Life.

One Step Closer to Utopia: Strîmb Living: Five Years with Oskar (2011)

The contented routine of the two characters from Strîmb Life is seamlessly continued in Strîmb Living: Five Years with Oskar, even if the geography of the book has changed: the habitation of the strîmb couple, Brynjar and Manuel, is now thirty minutes from Oslo, in a snug house tucked away in a forest and circled by flying men that appear to have taken the place of the protective peephole from the first book (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. The house where Oskar, Brynjar and Manuel live, circled by the flying men.

Fig. 6. The house where Oskar, Brynjar and Manuel live, circled by the flying men.

The benign Oskar, a pensioner in his seventies one guesses to be a relative of Brynjar’s, although the connection is not explained, is now added to the couple’s formula for happiness. Oskar is a mediating figure, represented as a kind chubby bespectacled man mostly seated between Brynjar and Manuel, whom he has welcomed to his home (Fig. 7). There, they each take turns buying groceries and performing various chores, but more often than not they are so static that they are even vacuumed by the cleaning lady. They rarely leave the house and prefer falling asleep in front of the TV, where they watch various shows as well as what they pronounce to be the same old news, over and over again.

Fig. 7. Oskar seated between Brynjar and Manuel, in a telling panel where Oskar cannot remember a word that the other two characters are already piecing together, in the same harmony as in the previous book.

Fig. 7. Oskar seated between Brynjar and Manuel, in a telling panel where Oskar cannot remember a word that the other two characters are already piecing together, in the same harmony as in the previous book.

Indeed, Strîmb Living is one step closer to utopia than Strîmb Life, perhaps because the intrusions of the everyday appear less here, and the harmonious and often dreamlike universe of love and leisure populated by our three main characters tends to contaminate the rest of the world rather than allowing the world to come in and spoil its bliss. These intrusions of dreams upon reality are accepted with calm by the characters, such as when Brynjar and Manuel hitch a ride on a moose’s back on one of the rare occasions when they have to leave the house to attend a party (Fig. 8), or the occasion when Oskar meets and helps the king of Norway whilst skiing in the forest. Even David Attenborough’s nature show features a moose coming out of the crack of a buttock-shaped mountain to possibly sexually assault him; thus, even the documentary TV show is infused with playful fiction.

Fig. 8. Brynjar and Manuel hitch a ride on a moose’s back on their way to a party.

Fig. 8. Brynjar and Manuel hitch a ride on a moose’s back on their way to a party.

Homophobia is rarely present either in Strîmb Life (where it does not make a full-fledged appearance) or in Strîmb Living, and when it does appear, it is regarded with stupefaction, as in the episode where some kids in an Oslo parade shout homophobic slurs, to Oskar’s dismay (Fig. 9). The latter is an upsetting moment Bandlien downplays by quickly using the opportunity of quoting, in Oskar’s screaming face, the figure of the artist most present in Oslo, Edvard Munch.

Fig. 9. Oskar’s reaction after they are insulted by kids shouting homophobic slurs at them during an Oslo parade.

Fig. 9. Oskar’s reaction after they are insulted by kids shouting homophobic slurs at them during an Oslo parade.

There is also some related violence, but it is part of the fictional realm, and it appears in the form of a TV show – called Strîmb Kids – featuring two queer children, a male ballet dancer who looks strikingly like Brynjar and a female judo player;[5] they are the strîmb kids who team up to distribute deserved punishment upon homophobes.

The rather ‘extravagant’ lifestyle – as the Brynjar character puts it – of the three men in this second book is, however, periodically threatened by its inevitable end, signaled by Oskar’s increasingly frequent falls which indicate a failing health he is generously trying to keep from his two houseguests, so as not to alarm them. Although the outside world is kept at bay and the little forest utopia prospers undisturbed for a while, the levitating men become rather ominous, associated as they are with Oskar’s episodes, where he loses consciousness and presumably drifts into a dreamlike state. Drawn as they are on extensions to the book, fold-out pages that make it appear to have the ability of flying away at any given moment, the flying men are reality checks – signs of the temporary nature of achieved utopia – paradoxically relegated to the realm of dreams and hallucinations. Oskar is evasive whenever he is asked about his episodes, but their increased frequency indicates that he is slowly leaving the peaceful utopia he has created together with the other two young men. At the end of the book, he simply does not return after one of his episodes, and his half-sketched face signals his evanescence. This is an appropriate representational solution for the disappearance of a character whose connection to life seems fragile at all times, perhaps also because of his rare kindness and incredible benevolence.

Interrogating Queer Life/Living as Utopia

Strîmb Life and Strîmb Living may not be quite successful in establishing strîmb as a new term in the generally poor vocabulary Romanian has for queer things, but Brynjar and Manuel do on occasion attempt to create a vague definitional cluster around the term. For instance, in Strîmb Living the couple playfully solve a crossword puzzle and successfully guess words such as “bum,” “semen,” “butch,” “testicles,” “dildo,” and in the end they realize that the fact that they have a 100% score means that they must be strîmb. This is completed somewhat by the lines of the cheerful song they sing when a friend (in possession of “strîmb beauty,” we are told) gives them a sledge ride home (Fig. 10). The song suggests that the world has never been as straight as all that (“no line runs in one direction/nothing goes in one straight line”) and perhaps that “true love” is responsible for the partner we choose.

Fig. 10. The strîmb song, whose score is also given at the end of the book.

Fig. 10. The strîmb song, whose score is also given at the end of the book.

However, the song thankfully maintains a good distance from its own potential axiomatic heaviness, not only because, like most of the book, it whimsically moves from one topic to another, but also because the three goofy characters are all catapulted off the sledge, presumably because of an error committed by the little dog driver with a medical collar around its head.

Bandlien’s strîmb work thus confirms the notorious ‘resistance to definition’ (Jagose 1) of queerness, but also engages in deliberate but playful conversation with the methods of an important comics genre, that of “reality-based comics,” also known by many other names, such as “autobiographical comics,” “graphic memoir,” “autographics” (cf. Whitlock). In the end, Bandlien willingly situates his work on the side of “autobifictionalography” (cf. Barry), where he can productively use fantasy to flesh out the missing pieces of an extravagant world of love and happiness.

At the same time, Bandlien’s decision to place his characters outside of (hetero)normative time manages to draw the important outline of a utopian space where queer/strîmb is a temporarily achieved utopia but also a future hope (Fig. 11) through the joyful routine of a couple that escapes the demons of compulsory chronology,[6] ‘the temporal frames of bourgeois reproduction and family, longevity, risk/safety, and inheritance’ (Halberstam 6).

Fig. 11. The promise of a queer utopia.

Fig. 11. The promise of a queer utopia.

In this sense, it is important that so little emphasis is placed on the work of the two main characters, who are well-known and very active artists, because in this manner Bandlien manages to lift his narrative even further out of “grown-up” temporality, responsibility, and fear. There is—importantly—no fear in Bandlien’s work, and it is in this fearless place where repetition is embraced as a confirmation of the beloved’s presence that we can find the blueprints for the Not-Yet-Here [7] of strîmbness.

Author’s Note

I would like to thank Brynjar Åbel Bandlien for allowing me to use images from his books in this paper, and also for his promptness and kindness during the writing process. A few paragraphs from my comments on Strîmb Life, as well as the interview with Brynjar Åbel Bandlien were initially done for a comics app (COMICS RO), financed by an AFCN grant and commissioned by Asociaţia Jumătatea Plină. The writing of this paper was also made possible by UEFISCDI grant PN-II-RU-TE-2011-3-0149, Cross-Cultural Encounters in American Trauma Narratives: A Comparative Approach to Personal and Collective Memories; project coordinator: Assoc. Prof. Roxana Elena Oltean.

Works Cited

Bandlien, Brynjar Åbel. Strîmb Life. Bucharest: Hardcomics Publishers, 2009. Print.

—. Strîmb Living: Five Years with Oskar. Bucharest: Hardcomics Publishers, 2011. Print.

Barry, Lynda. One! Hundred! Demons! Seattle: Sasquatch, 2002. Print.

Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York UP, 2005. Print.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York UP, 2009. Print.

Phelan, Peggy. Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Whitlock, Gillian. ‘Autographics: the Seeing “I” of the Comics.’ Modern Fiction Studies 52.4 (Winter 2006): 965-79. Print.

Mihaela Precup is an Assistant Professor in the American Studies Program at the University of Bucharest, Romania, where she teaches American visual culture, popular culture, film studies, as well as American literature. Her main research interests include autobiographical comics, trauma studies, and family photography. She is the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship with the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Yale University (2006-2007). She edited a volume of essays entitled American Visual Memoirs after the 1970s. Studies on Gender, Sexuality, and Visibility in the Post-Civil Rights Age (Bucharest: Bucharest University Press, 2010). She is currently involved in two research projects funded by the National University Research Council of Romania (NURC), Cross-Cultural Encounters in American Trauma Narratives: A Comparative Approach to Personal and Collective Memories and Women’s Narratives of Transnational Relocation.

[1] – This paper is informed by José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, where he identifies the queer aesthetic as the place that ‘frequently contains blueprints and schemata of a forward-dawning futurity’ (1).

[2] – In Romanian, strîmb translates as bent/not straight. I shall come back to this term later in my paper.

[3] – In an interview, I asked Bandlien what his motivation was for portraying himself here as a loafer, blissfully smiling, hands behind his head, and, I thought, never working. However, Bandlien drew my attention to the fact that, despite appearances, he does portray himself and Manuel working in this part of the book: ‘I do portray myself and Manuel at work on the first page in the second panel/fourth and sixth frame of Strîmb Life [Fig. 2]; Manuel playing music from a gettoblaster and me dancing naked at Centrul National al Dansului-Bucuresti. But its true that my dancing career isn’t very present in Strîmb Life. The fixed positions in which Manuel and myself are posing throughout the book, which by the way are the same as in Strîmb Living, have to be seen in relation with the structure of the panels. At the center of each page is a circular frame of Manuel and me sitting in our living-room. The cover shows even more clearly how we in fact are sitting inside a bubble hovering above Bucharest. I guess that is how I saw us at the time… living from day to day, dancing at parties and hanging around Bucharest with our friends in a more or less decadent lifestyle. I wished for us to remain unchanged by all the situations and events that were taking place around us (…).’

[4] – However, there is definitely a disconnectedness in Strîmb Life from the everyday realities of Romania outside the standard issues of aggressive stray dogs and orphans. Nowhere else is that more visible than in the ”adoption” episode that reads as unnecessarily flimsy and seems to avoid the real social issue behind the caricature (although the couple does do social work in an underprivileged community, which makes that part of the book even foggier ideologically). Perhaps this indicates a certain difficulty of separating the life of a couple so completely from the life of the city, and this hesitation speaks quite aptly about the negotiation with the outside world many couples must perform.

[5] – In my interview with Bandlien, he did say that his next comic book will be entitled Strîmb Kids, and that it is a project developed together with his friend, Stine Lastein, and related to ‘Strîmb Kids, that somewhat violent two episode TV-show in Strîmb Living.’

[6] – It is true, Oskar does die, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that he vanishes. Also, throughout the book, the Oskar character is also portrayed as an individual who lives outside of time.

[7] – I am here referencing José Esteban Muňoz’s Cruising Utopia, where he relies on Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope to suggest that ‘queerness in its utopian connotations promises a human that is not yet here, thus disrupting any ossified understanding of the human’ (25-6).

 
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Posted by on 2013/05/30 in Guest Writers

 

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