By Harriet Earle
Winner of the 2016 SICBA Best Graphic Novel Award and the Independent Publisher’s 2016 Outstanding Book of the Year Independent Spirit Award.
Unfortunately, it’s probably happened to all of us. We find ourselves in a situation that does not feel quite right—perhaps it was a stranger on the bus standing uncomfortably close or a sense of being followed when walking home in the late evening. Unfortunately, it’s probably happened to a large number of us that we’ve been in situations far more dangerous. Sexual harassment and assault exists on a scale and it is wrong to suggest that the ‘lower’ end of the scale should be dismissed. Often, such actions are dismissed and victims are told to ‘take it as a compliment’, a grim suggestion when we consider how uncomfortable and personally violated these behaviours can make us feel. The issue of sexual harassment and assault have become of increasing importance in the social conversation of the 21st century but often the focus is on men targeting women and ignores the wider issue of female-to-male and same-sex harassment. Enter Maria Stoian’s 2016 comic Take It as a Compliment. Taking that horrible yet common phrase as its title, this not really Stoian’s story—it’s a collective memoir of sexual assault, created by survivors and filtered through Stoian’s artwork.
Stoian uses this unusual book as a vehicle for telling ‘real stories’. Her material comes from a Tumblr blog (still active) and the testimonies of anonymous internet users who submitted their stories to her site. Take It as a Compliment comprises twenty short vignettes that are not arranged in any discernible order. The events do not become ‘more serious’ as the reader moves through the book. The fact that stories of street harassment sit next to date rape and sustained relational abuse gives a clear message—this type of behaviour is multitudinous in its presentation and one type can become another. The inability to act (or the decision not to) can allow abusive behaviours to percolate. Stoian’s book clearly demonstrates exactly what law enforcement agencies the world over are now learning—that this kind of behaviour does not exist in isolation, but in dialogue (for want of a better word) with other types of abuse. In negating the ability to create any kind of hierarchy and removing all distinguishing features of the speaker of each narrative (some mention age and gender, but class and race are largely absent), Stoian allows each individual story to exist as what it is and not in competition with the other in her collection.
No story in this collection is particularly long. That is not to say they are quick reads. It took me a considerable amount of time to move through each due to the strange complexity of each story, despite its length and the deceptive simplicity of the artwork. Stoian’s art is a curious thing. People are simply drawn, with unusual colouring and few visual cues to show difference. In the first story, black and white line drawings are overlaid with green and orange phantom hands that grope the speaker on the Barcelona subway. The page is crowded and images bleed to the edge of the page: it is claustrophobic to read. Though the hands are a physical entity within the comic, their ghostly representation suggests the way that the memory of them is lingering in the speaker’s memory and that they are still very much present, albeit not physically. In sharp contrast, the sixth story has no panels, no bubbles and consists of four sets of two loosely-drawn head-and-shoulders characters. One propositions the other (‘Hey, do you give good head?’), is rebuffed (‘My boyfriend thinks so’) and ignores the obvious rebuff (‘So are we doing this or not, I have to work in the morning’). The juxtaposition of the almost-childlike wax crayon artwork and handwriting with the coarse and sexually aggressive proposition is jarring. In fact, that’s the best word for this entire book: jarring.
Reading about sexual harassment and assault is not meant to be a cushy, comfortable experience. Stoian’s bold, honest illustrations of each separate testimony are uncomfortable individually, but put together and read in one go they are profoundly unsettling. To my mind, this is the greatest success of this book—it is like being hit over the head repeatedly with stories of violence, harassment and stalking that are happening every day to all kinds of people and forced to take notice. There are twitter hashtags, social media campaigns and viral videos—yes, they are working to raise awareness—but to see in glaring, bold, deceptively sweet drawings that this is happening now is hard to ignore. This book is physical proof of the far-reaching effects of the sexual violence spectrum and testament to the strength of those working to combat it. Stoian ends the book with several pages of resources on what we can do if we have been victims of sexual harassment and assault and also what can be done at the individual level to start working to support survivors and prevent future events. The guidelines are simple enough and we should already know them but they provide the perfect counterpoint to the stories within. They have happened and they were horrible. Now let’s do something about it.
Take It as a Compliment by Maria Stoian is now available from Singing Dragon Publishers.
Stoian is also on twitter: https://twitter.com/mariadraws