Alternative Paradoxes in Heartless: Reading (Un-)Love in Nina Bunjevac’s ‘Bitter Tears of Zorka Petrovic’ by Laura A. Pearson

27 May

Right in the heart of Nina Bunjevac’s comics collection Heartless (2012) we find Zorka, the eponymous protagonist of the five-comic sequence ‘Bitter Tears of Zorka Petrovic.’[1] This is the same intriguing catwoman character who adorns the front and back covers, first displayed behind the wheel of a car and then defiantly riding the back of an unplugged vacuum cleaner. Contrasting these cover images, on the splash page beginning the ‘Bitter Tears’ sequence, we rediscover Zorka, framed—etherized even—in thick black, undergoing an abortion. In this precisely paradoxical ‘pregnant moment’—inducing a temporal narrative cycle that ‘radiates in both directions’ (Wolk 2007, 131) and arousing a heighted sense of ‘Peeping Tomism’ that comes along with reading through the windows of graphic fiction—this image conjures all sorts of human-non-human, funny animal, and ‘not-so-funny animal’ associations [2] (Fig.1). And thus begins a text teeming with ‘alternative tensions,’[3] a tragicomic yet serious satire, where at least one crucial crux—the fantasy of love, lust, and belonging—resides between a comedy of errors on one hand and a tragedy of ideologically grounded ideals on the other.

Fig. 1. ‘Bitter Tears of Zorka Petrovic’ Splash Page (61). Used with permission from Nina Bunjevac.[4] Click to view – reader discretion is advised – image contains abortion related subject matter.

In attempting a reading of ‘Bitter Tears,’ we cannot help but place this work within an alternative comics context. One applicable definition of ‘alternative comic’ follows what Charles Hatfield describes as ‘often denot[ing] satirical, political, and autobiographical elements inherited from [the earlier] underground comix [movement of the late 1960s]’ (2005, 26). Aspects of satire, politics, and autobiography—all challenging aspects of the mainstream tradition—are certainly apparent in Bunjevac’s text. Zorka is not your typical anthropomorphic character, and she stands in opposition to the all-alluring Catwoman of the mainstream. Instantly, Zorka’s character is antithetical to what Roger Sabin identifies as the primary modes of representation open to women, both in mainstream comic genres and also the male-dominated underground mode in which women characters are ‘invariably either plot devices (there to be rescued) or sex symbols (all plunging necklines and endless legs)’ (1993, 221). Thus, Bunjevac’s work shares common themes with certain feminist comics—such as those known as Wimmen’s Comix—that first grew up in reaction to the early male dominated and often misogynistic underground scene, yet also continue to flourish in different realms of alternative and autobiographical comics today.[5] Additionally, Zorka also shares some commonalities with Bunjevac herself (according to Bunjevac), and we must read Zorka in her ‘Canadian Yugoslavian/Yugoslavian Canadian’ context as well.[6]

Indeed, the politics of this text run much deeper than those resonating on a plane of sexist destabilization. In fact, several webs of intersubjectivity become obvious when attempting to attach the “alternative” designation to various aspects of this comic. The more I grappled with the usage of “alternative” here, the more these issues became apparent. Yet the text itself seems to provoke this critical engagement with marginally (and minority) defined identities.[7] To acknowledge problems with this term, I use “alternative” within scare quotes (and imply this usage throughout) because of the obvious contingencies, proliferated here, in that it both denotes a deviation from a “norm” and thus reifies binary and stereotypical divisions in its possible implication of the “abnormal.” This can become further problematic in that what often seems abnormal becomes available to be pathologized or demonized and used as a justified means towards marginalizing and “othering” people, populations, and indeed “things” in themselves. Within a discourse of alterity the challenge becomes, then, finding the means to articulate “otherness” without reinforcing the binaries that underpin hegemony in the first place. In several ways, I think this graphic narrative effectively visualizes and posits questions over why and how “alternative” functions and gets deemed as such. Thus, through this text’s attention to alterity, Bunjevac mines cultural and sociopolitical meanings and subversions of alternative, alternativeness, and, indeed, the idea of having alternatives within interrelated and normative structures.

The story revolves around an unrequited love-triangle involving Zorka, who, in the first scene, telephones the ‘Exotica Fantasy Club’ to contact Chip (also part of the triangle), but she reaches Fay, the front desk clerk (the third in the triangle). Fay, a complicated transgender* character,[8] is also in love with Chip, the ostensible male prostitute and stripper who Zorka tries to contact for most of the story. Almost immediately we have three apparently alternative characters: Zorka, the chain-smoking immigrant catwoman, whose “catness” apparently signifies her ethnic “otherness” (her family is depicted as catpeople as well); Fay, the trans* character, who has both addictive and mother issues (66-7); and Chip, the male stripper, who is apparently bi-/multi-sexual (65). Following this alternative character motif, we can add Chip’s ‘elderly female companion’ (65) to the list, and Mr. Harold T. Garfield, ‘aka Mr. Shit Pants’ (68).[9] Of this group, Chip is the sex object, the apparent star at this mostly alternative/male club, and the seeming embodiment of “Fantasy” itself (Fig 2). Tellingly, Bunjevac only gives him one verbal line in the entire story (when he asks to share Zorka’s joint right before they have sex in the bathroom), yet he embodies an undeniable power despite his voicelessness: for Fay and Zorka he is a physical manifestation of their desire for love.

Fig. 2. Chip at the Exotica Fantasy Club (71). Used with permission from Nina Bunjevac.

Fig. 2. Chip at the Exotica Fantasy Club (71). Used with permission from Nina Bunjevac.

Every depicted character is alternative in some way, especially when held up to a narrative standard, such as that traditionally characterized by the white, Western, middle-class, able-bodied, heteropatriarchal male. We might most commonly recognize such characters in ‘ubiquitous chosen-boy’ narratives (Hubel 2005, 18). There are literally multitudes of these characters, one might think of Harry Potter, for example, or, of course, any number of heroes and superheroes in the mainstream comics world. As such, the characters in ‘Bitter Tears’ seemingly perform potential destabilizations against such dominant narratives that continue to be reiterated and cross-culturally consumed. But as soon as we realize that this norm (as embodied by a character) is absent in this text, and begin to applaud this text for representing alternatives, we also come to realize that a variant of its ideological referent and conventional cultural ideals that it stands for is alive and well and functioning through the almost indiscernible, yet insidious character of “Love.”

“Love” assumes its own character in this text; it’s referred to on twenty-two out of twenty-nine of the image-text pages in this story. Sometimes it appears as an iconic image in heart bubbles, sometimes within the whites of Zorka’s eyes, sometimes on her bed sheets or in the shape of her purse, sometimes in reference to ‘heart,’ ‘heartache,’ or ‘heartless,’ and in several other textual examples also relating to Fay as well. The point is clear that “Love” permeates this graphic narrative and takes on a very specific role when the text suggests its ramifications within institutional underpinnings. As the story unfolds through a complex narrative structure of flashback scenes and the scripts of Zorka’s letters that she is writing to Chip, we find out about Zorka’s one night stand with Chip and her attempts to contact him, first because she’s in love with him, and then later her attempts become more urgent when she finds out that she is pregnant. Meanwhile, Fay thwarts every attempt that Zorka makes to contact him and becomes the seeming antagonist, as she prevents Zorka from speaking so-to-speak.[10] Both Zorka and Faye’s actions throughout are in response to their desire for Chip and their desire for what he stands for—capital “L” Love.

With Love established as a norm (and why wouldn’t these characters want it?), this text is intent on punching at the alternative button, and this is reinforced through tensions between audience gaze and the diegetic narrative. On one level we see the alternative typified as a hyperbolic underworld full of taboos, such as, sex, drugs, and rock and roll—an encoding that may now have come to signify its own normative type of “alternative” in the history of underground comics. But the inverted point here—suggested by another level to this alternativeness—is that these characters are not just representing counterculture in the interest of subverting comics norms or performing bawdiness for the sake of bawdiness. As this text also displays, at the level of the narrative, these characters enact such actions (drinking, drugs, etc.) because of feelings of insecurity, and lack of love that they so desire for their personal fulfillment. The seeming comedy is never very far from the tragedy here. The text places both stereotype and subversion side-by-side, skewing the alternative dimensions over whether the comedy resides in the gaze, the tragedy in the diegesis (or is it the other way around?). Yet, the link between them comes back to values built on Love.

The perniciousness of the Love preoccupation builds throughout the story. Perhaps this becomes most apparent when we see that it is inextricably tied to the discourse of an idealized American Dream. The juxtaposition of Zorka’s immigrant working-classness with that of her sister’s acculturated middle-classness noticeably materializes why a normative version of Love is so important for Zorka. Zorka lives in what’s called ‘Settlement City,’ and Mirka, her sister, lives what appears to be a typical middle-class lifestyle as a housewife (Fig. 3). Mirka criticizes Zorka for working in a meat factory (another source of irony since she is also part animal) and for living in Settlement City for the past twenty-years. Mirka wants to set Zorka up with a man—‘one of their own’ she says—both revealing her own biases and suggesting that such a relationship would raise Zorka’s social status in the world. The interdependent text of image and narration is telling and sarcastic here: the narrator relates, ‘In all honesty, Zorka didn’t give a hoot. As a matter of fact – Zorka hated her sister Mirka with a passion. She hated her perfect church-going family, her soccer playing idiot son, that big-shot gangster husband of hers and their new house in the suburbs’ (77). Beyond the explicit sarcasm, the text’s reference to ‘gangster husband’ suggests ambiguities in obtaining and maintaining the suburban lifestyle in the world of Mirka. This point is reinforced when Mirka must hang up the phone because her husband doesn’t like her talking on it. In Mirka’s ideal imaginary, we become aware that she has interpellated her own subordination through interrelated and value laden forms of assimilation. Additionally, even though the narrator tells us that Zorka ‘hates’ her sister and her lifestyle, Zorka’s actions suggest otherwise. Zorka is trying to contact Chip because she clearly desires a very similar type of lifestyle, proceeding from and informed by this heteropatriarchal and middle-class ideal (Fig 4-5). Zorka’s model of Love looks curiously similar to Mirka’s picture-perfect life, which Zorka both professes to ‘hate’ and yet also seems impatient to buy into (albeit, Chip is a clear alternative to the “catman” ideal Mirka wants for Zorka).

Fig. 3. Zorka in ‘Settlement City,’ Mirka in Suburbia (77). Used with permission from Nina Bunjevac.

Fig. 3. Zorka in ‘Settlement City,’ Mirka in Suburbia (77). Used with permission from Nina Bunjevac.

Fig. 4. Zorka’s ideal of Love (88). Used with permission from Nina Bunjevac.

Fig. 4. Zorka’s ideal of Love (88). Used with permission from Nina Bunjevac.

Fig. 5. Zorka’s ideal of Love continued (89). Used with permission from Nina Bunjevac.

Fig. 5. Zorka’s ideal of Love continued (89). Used with permission from Nina Bunjevac.

For Zorka, finding a man and the status he confers is suggested to be a questionable promise for happiness. This is evidenced, for example, by the underhand suggestion that Mirka wants to set Zorka up with a man who could be dangerous: apparently he’s had an altercation with his ex-wife and might be a rapist. In this way, the man part of the Love equation is gradually shown to run deeper than just a desire or a fantasy on the part of the seeker. It is also revealed to be a requirement for a form of culturally and socio-politically defined normative femininity. And it comes back to Love as the first step in securing a piece of this status quo. In other words, this specific form of (possibly dangerous) Love becomes metonymic for success and social belonging.

The text goes a step further to comment on the ethno-religious groundings of these ideals as well. In perhaps one of the most telling moment-to-moment sequences of the story, we see Zorka making her abortion appointment. Here, Zorka is displayed in the spotlight, her shadow, perhaps symbolic of another self, is projected behind her. She is under the iconic image of a cross and visibly shaking as she makes the call to arrange her appointment (Fig. 6). Because of her circumstances, and (importantly) her location [11] in the world, the pro-choice decision she makes here appears to be made freely. Yet, when taken together with the text of Zorka’s last letter to Chip, asking him to consider a life with her and their unborn child—her ‘Last Plea’—this image takes on a deeper, darker significance. Her text to Chip reads: ‘We could be so very happy together, you and I and our love-child. I have some money saved up … Not much but perhaps enough for a down-payment on a bungalow’ (89). She continues, ‘I have safe-guarded myself and made an appointment to have the pregnancy terminated – however – I do hope that you’ll see reason and give “us” a chance’ (89). Two key words resonate here: ‘safe-guard’ and ‘reason.’ As Zorka says, she must ‘safe-guard’ herself, but as the story concludes, the text suggests that she’s actually upholding her female honour that would be ruined if she were to have a child out of wedlock. This expectation of safeguarding one’s female honour exemplifies the collision between sociocultural values and politics that emerge over issues of personal free will and choice.

Fig. 6. Zorka makes her abortion appointment (83). Used with permission from Nina Bunjevac.

Fig. 6. Zorka makes her abortion appointment (83). Used with permission from Nina Bunjevac.

The sadness of this reality—that the matter of her having a choice is in fact illusory—is immediately both emphasized and undercut on the following page. Zorka turns into a funny animal parody of herself, marching across the top three panels, declaring ‘Ahhh…What a great time to be alive. Free to live my life as I wish…having full control over my body. Yep! Free to go wherever I want… Free to do whatever I want! Free to drink whatever I want… Free to do so whenever I want!’ (84). Again the comedy/tragedy crux is exposed when the idea of freedom becomes lampooned as everything Zorka has just ‘freely’ consumed in the previous panels—pop corn, chips, soda, etc.—returns on her. Instead of marching freely across the page as in the previous sequence, she now runs across the top of the opposing page in order to throw up in the toilet (85). Juxtaposed this way, with her mind thinking one thing while her body does another, Zorka is perfectly framed as a humanimal—‘I think, therefore I am’ on one hand, but also an animal ‘automaton’ on the other.[12] The concept of agency, this text suggests, is a murky one indeed.

Without the conventional and morally required progression of events—love, marriage, child bearing (Fig. 4-5)—Zorka has no alternative choice. Never does she consider another way to have her child. The ‘reason’ and ‘safe-guard’ implication is that she can’t. The matter of the fallacy of her choice is heightened by the image of Zorka’s suffering and sadness and indeed her ‘bitter tears.’ The raw commentary from the narrator here reinforces the violence of her pro-choice no-choice paradox. The text reads:

Zorka will eventually recover from the procedure – which went surprisingly well. She will have spent many sleepless nights, tossing and turning over tear-soaked pillows, contemplating her empty life, and all that could have been – but never came to be… Two weeks after the procedure the bleeding went away – but not the heartache. (93)

Zorka’s tragic ‘heartache’ indicates a detectable contradiction regarding her relationship with Love in the space where ideology coopts the objects of her desire. Zorka herself may have put her finger on this early on in the text, speaking the unspeakable so-to-speak, when she said, ‘Fuck you, Love!’ (74).

In the last four frames of the text, looking out the window (typical of an entrapped or falsely conscious comics character), Zorka asks Mirka about the man she wanted to set her up with. And at first we might laugh—it’s a comedic roadrunner and Wile E Coyote moment in which Zorka appears to be subjecting herself to further torture. But any sort of comedy is immediately undercut as we recall the earlier suggestion that this man is a rapist. Thus, the text ends with a tragic anti-pregnant moment, compared to the pregnant moment we began with: life has literally been sucked out of her; figuratively and cyclically it will continue to be as long as she is chasing the ideological dream and the specific ideal of patriarchal love it’s tied to.

This graphic text resonates among multiple “alternative” platforms in that it portrays marginal and minority characters and taboos indicative of pressing the boundaries of traditional or orthodox norms. In terms of “alternative comics” Bunjevac’s Heartless ironically breeds a new type of catwoman—Canadian, working-class, Yugoslav immigrant—into a subversive tragicomic world, both in the tradition of, yet also moving beyond, previous comics versions. By the end of this hyper-alternative text, the very idea of alternative and its related semblances of freedom and choice become transformed with the revelation of the inherent ideological paradoxes attached to these characters through fantasies of Love. In the end, Bunjevac provides us with windows into enmeshed politics of love and politics of life, provocatively challenging the conventional ‘love conquers all’ —leaving us to contemplate alternatives to the question: who or what is most Heartless here?

Works Cited

Bunjevac, Nina. Heartless: Comics. Greenwich: Conundrum P, 2012. Print.

Bunjevac, Nina. Interview with Robin McConnell. “Nina Bunjevac.”, 31 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.

Chute, Hillary L. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia UP, 2010. Print.

Gravett, Paul. “Nina Bunjevac: Making Comics and Making Peace.”, 6 Jan 2013. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.

Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2005. Print.

Hubel, Teresa. “In Pursuit of Feminist Postfeminism and the Blessings of Buttercup.” ESC: English Studies in Canada 1.2 (2005): 17-21. Print.

Precup, Mihaela. “Felines and Females on the Fringe: Femininity and Dislocation in Nina Bunjevac’s Heartless.” Between History and Personal Narrative: East European Women’s Stories of Migration in the New Millennium. Ed. Maria-Sabina Draga Alexandru, Madalina Nicolaescu, and Helen Smith. Vol. 4. Münster: LIT Verlag, 2013. 177-192. Print.

Sabin, Roger. Adult Comics: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Witek, Joseph. Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1989. Print.

Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Philadelphia: Da Capo P, 2007. Print.

Laura A. Pearson is a PhD Candidate in the School of English at the University of Leeds, funded by the School of English’s Bonamy Dobrée Scholarship. Her doctoral project combines aspects of zoocriticism—the study of animals, literature, and culture—and interdisciplinary facets of comics studies, looking at animal-human relations and transcultural ecologies in contemporary graphic novels.

[1] – This article is an adaptation from a previous version presented at Comics Forum 2013.

[2] – ‘Peeping Tomism’ and ‘not-so-funny animal’ are phrases borrowed from Joseph Witek’s Comic Books as History; the latter phrase he uses via Richard Gehr (72, 111).

[3] – This phrase alludes to Charles Hatfield’s ‘Art of Tensions’ (32).

[4] – I would like to thank Nina Bunjevac for providing the images used in this article.

[5] – See, for example, Hilary Chute’s Graphic Women. It should also be noted that Bunjevac has talked about a range of influences in her work, including the Black Wave of Yugoslav cinema, which is also very apparent in her work here.

[6] – See Bunjevac’s interview at Inkstuds, for her discussion of the Canadian/Yugoslavian designation. See also Paul Gravett’s article/interview for other examples and for her biography and further samples of her work.

[7] – See Mihaela Precup’s chapter for an exploration of Zorka’s ‘in-betweenness’ (178).

[8] – We never find out Fay’s orientation for sure, but the narrator identifies her as ‘she,’ so I will do the same for the duration of this paper. I use “trans*” as a politically inclusive category, though I know there are controversies with such categorizations. It should also be noted that there are obvious Freudian and psychoanalytical undertones that the text suggests in relation to both Fay and Zorka and their family backgrounds. Unfortunately I don’t have space to explore these Oedipal connections here.

[9] – The all-caps typeset of the original text has been changed to be consistent with the text of this paper.

[10] – This complex character surely deserves a paper of her own. I regret I don’t have space to further explore her here.

[11] – The text never spells out the time period or the location specifically. Because of the style of telephones Zorka has on page 77, I am speculating that it’s set in the 1990s. Because of the iconic image of the CN tower that appears in the first story of Heartless, in ‘Opportunity Presents Itself’ (page 12), and because Bunjevac identifies with Zorka’s home in Settlement City (in her Inkstuds interview), I assume the location to be Toronto.

[12] – I am referring to Rene Descartes’s famous postulations here.

[13] – This line is historically attributed to Virgil (70-19 BC) Eclogue X, line 69, ‘omnia vincit amor.’

[Editor’s Note: This paper is an adapted version of a conference paper given at Comics Forum 2013.]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: