Punchbuggy Tour: Teen homosexuality, herpes and other topics fit for comics

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PERKINS LIBRARY, DUKE UNIVERSITY—Those who maintain that comic books are merely for children would have encountered powerful arguments to the contrary at Duke's Perkins Library on Tuesday, where a trio of young creators discussed comics covering such topics as teen homosexuality, living with herpes and hooking up with a way-too-young waitress on a business trip.

The library played home to the Punchbuggy Tour, a two-week junket promoting the work of M.K. Reed, Liz Baillie and Ken Dahl.

Each cartoonist read from their work, which amounted to narrating panels projected onto a screen via computer. Reed's deadpan Cross Country chronicles two guys touring a series of big box stores for work; her illustrations capture the washed-out landscapes of these characters and painfully real observational dialogue (the first chapter is available as a PDF and the complete work can be ordered here).

Baillie read from two of her works. My Brain Hurts is a teenager-queer-punks-in-New York City saga, while Freewheel is the tale of an orphan on a quest to find her brother; though vastly different, both works show an assured visual tone that represents everything from graffiti-riddled streets to a forest refuge for drifters, and an ear for realistic dialogue. Both works can be ordered from her Web site.

Dahl's Monsters, perhaps the most offbeat work previewed, blows the lid off of an unpleasant fact—the high number of people out there infected with herpes. Dahl's graphic novel takes a painfully hilarious look at the paranoia, self-hatred and ineffective "cures" that the infected suffer on a daily basis. Billed as "part fiction, part educational film strip," it's both a painful comedy of social awkwardness and an effective cry for tolerance—even if it's just self-tolerance (it can be ordered here).

The turnout to the reading was light—about a dozen showed up. In the short discussion after the readings, the panelists agreed that the problem with women in comics was that most female characters were "superheroes with huge boobs written by men." With books like theirs, though, there's plenty of forward progress being made—even if it's just understanding how many people out there have herpes.

One step at a time.

The works were introduced by Will Hansen of the Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library and interviewed by local comics critic Rob Clough on the subject of "gender issues in comics." The appearance was organized by technical archivist Megan E. Lewis.

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