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This book is a retrospective of strip cartoons written by Roberta Gregory and published in the comic Naughty Bits between 1991 and 1999. The heroine of the series is Midge McCracken, otherwise known, for good reasons, as Bitchy Bitch. Midge is dysphoric, disappointed, desperate, and just plain bitchy. She is also racist, intolerant, and short tempered. She's even worse when she's premenstrual. Or poscoital. Or stuck in a traffic jam. She fights with the women in her office, she snarls at men who pester her for a relationship, she's mean to her mother. So why would anyone like her? There's something vulnerable about Midge, something that makes you hope things will work out for her, against all the evidence that things never get any better, and that life (and Midge) really is a bitch.
For someone like me, new to Bitchy and her antics, this book comes with a helpful introduction by Trina Robbins. Even better, Roberta Gregory has a website where you can read all about past issues of Naughty Bits (and about Gregory's diabetic cat). Life's a bitch includes stories from various periods (make that phases) in Bitchy's life, so that even for a new reader you can get a longitudinal view. There's the relatively recent holiday, told in three parts, episodes from her childhood and adolescence, and her more recent middle aged "Boy Trouble". The book contains a previously unpublished story "Daddy Deadest", in which we get to see Bitchy's responses to the death of her father. Other episodes cover her first sexual encounter, an abortion, and of course fractious scenes from the office where Bitchy spends the day resentfully in the company of her infuriating colleagues.
In addition to Midge we get to meet the characters who populate Midge's life. There's her insufferably grumpy father who seems to spend his life tormented by dyspepsia, watching TV, and making pronouncements like "Reagan's getting the economy right". Midge's mother, herself a plastic beauty, is constantly thwarted in her attempts to teach Midge to be a "proper young woman". There's the lecherous and inadequate Kenny who just doesn't understand Midge at all. Then there's those office people. What a crew. Sylvie is a cloying new ager, always looking for new ways of controlling her negative energies, and the hilariously funny Marice, a southern Christian bigot (try saying "Ah bet YEWD lahk tuh sahn muh puhTISHin fer EQAUL RAHTS". When a former school mate Barb, now lesbian, is employed at the office, everyone scrambles for cover. Midge redeems herself by going to lunch with Barb. When, later, she meets Barb's partner and daughter she asks all those troubling questions about gay relationships and children.
You don't have to have lived through the 60s, 70s, or 80s to appreciate both the humor and the social commentary of Gregory's Midge. The graphics bring it all to life, there's a soundtrack, and Gregory is a sharp observer of the times, not only of the clichés that are constantly recycled in film and television, but of the more personal conflicts that lie behind the images. If you had an illegal abortion at sixteen free love probably lost some of its appeal. And if your uncle groped you as a nine year old it's unlikely that the memories disappeared with a few puffs of a joint. Gregory's skill is that she can remind us of some of the reality behind the façade of people's lives, but she takes us past it. These comics contain some of the wittiest and outrageous gags you are likely to find. And then there is Gregory's superb drawings. She has the cartoonist's gift of achieving a dramatic change in mood with the stroke of a pen. Each character is highly distinctive; you can read their personalities from their visual depictions.
According to Gregory's website, Time Magazine named Naughty Bits one of the top comics of 2000. The comic was published for 13 years but, alas, has been discontinued. Fortunately Fantagraphics Books has had the foresight to reproduce these works in book form, so they are not the exclusive province of those in the know. I hope Fantagraphics will publish all the Bitchy Bitch cartoons in book form, for those of us who missed out over the years.
© 2007 Tony O'Brien
Link: Fantagraphics Books
Tony O'Brien is a short story writer and lecturer in mental health nursing at The University of Auckland, New Zealand: firstname.lastname@example.org