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Charm School Graphique
Volume One
by Elizabeth Watasin
A-Girl Studio, $9.98, 74pp
Published: June 2014

I bump into Elizabeth Watasin at a lot of steampunk events and she's always fun to chat with. She's an animation veteran, whose credits include a bunch of Disney features you've seen, but she's also quite the prolific author, whether in prose or other media. I have some of her 'Dark Victorian' novels, but I couldn't resist diving first into her 'Charm School' graphic novel series. There are least nine volumes, though I only have one at present, but there are four novellas too.

What caught my eye was her artwork. As you can see on the cover, she uses very few lines and not that much shading. It looks acutely simple, as if we could draw it, but those few lines are precisely the right lines and the result is utterly engaging. And no, we can't draw it. You and I can both draw a line but it's never going to be as characterful as one of Bunny's eyebrows. There are lines and there are lines. The lines Watasin draws are things of envy.

The poses she draws are even better, especially on key panels where she's clearly trying to make quite a serious impact. I think I became infatuated with Fairer Than when we first see her, as Bunny does. It doesn't matter that she's one of the fae and she's clearly head over heels with our lead, making them both lesbians and me a fifty year old dude. Her smiles aren't far behind her poses either. Few artists can draw smiles this consistently and make it seem so effortless.

What's so good about these poses, by the way, and the smiles too, is that they're natural. Every time someone cringes at the unnatural and likely acutely painful pose painted by a usually male artist of a female character in a comic book or on the cover of a sf/f novel, and they wish that a woman had done the artwork, they're talking about someone like Elizabeth Watasin. These poses are more engaging, believable and downright seductive for being natural. No wonder she revisits them, sometimes more than once.

I presume this is a collection of three shorter works, because that's how this is structured.

The lead pieces feature Bunny the lesbian teen witch, who looks a lot like Veronica Lake crossed with Cameron Diaz. These recount her adventures and misadventures with the two characters who clearly want her, even though only one is her girlfriend. There's a butch biker vampire chick by the name of Yu Ying, though she goes by Dean, clearly because she's modelled her cool demeanour on James Dean. But then there's Fairer Than, who is obviously fae but not just fae, as we discover towards the end of this volume, and she's so intoxicating that she doesn't even need to cast spells. A complicating factor is that Bunny lives with her three hideous aunts, all witches too, who want nothing more than her to find a boyfriend.

Then there are side pieces that get their own strip headers, like Dr. Vanessa Leather, Monster Maker and Variables starring Miss Fey Dently, a tall thin goth girl who's surely inspired by one Wednesday Addams. Add to that a few charming interludes with Bunny and Dean chatting with us in between the strips and this is quite the collection.

I should mention that the aesthetics are all vintage, crossing the Victorian with the fifties. I wonder if that's how the series will play out, as a conflict between the draws of these two eras. Dean is clearly a representative for the coolest of the fifties, where the good kids drink shakes and smoke and work up the bases with their sweeties. Fairer Than is straight out of the Victorian era, with flowing outfits, the era's fetish for the forest and the rebirth of fairy stories.

Other inspirations are Archie Comics, which I don't know well but can easily acknowledge after a neat introduction by the incomparable Trina Robbins, and Japanese manga, which is obvious, especially in Watasin's use of the chibi style, which is where characters are reimagined in tiny cute versions for an isolated frame, or even between frames, to emphasise an emotional response, often a violent one. It also shows up in how scenes shift style, often from exquisitely drawn and framed full page poses to an almost caricature style, swift and exaggerated.

I have to say that I'm hardly the target audience for this book, but I adored it anyway. I'd guess that it plays best to teenage lesbian readers with affectations toward the dark side, because this depicts the sort of world I'm sure they would prefer to live in, full of gorgeous girls, supernatural weirdos and the constant presence of magic. Whether they want to live in Little Salem, Darque Towne or the forest of the fae, the Twilight World is an enchantment all of its own and I'm instantly happy that this is not an isolated volume.

My favourite piece here is definitely The Wrecking Faerie, which introduces Fairer Than, a name that's better and better every time I think about it, and I'm not surprised to find that it's the story that was later turned into the first 'Charm School' novella, something I suddenly want to read before I dive into the 'Dark Victorian' books I already have on the shelf. I'm sadly not going to Gaslight Steampunk Expo this year, because of finances and COVID and how it's affected the creation of the sort of films that I'd screen there under my Apocalypse Later banner. Next year, though, I plan on being there and I hope I see Elizabeth Watasin so I can buy a whole slew of her work to devour. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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