SPASM is a collection of early short comics by Catherine Jeffrey Jones published by Last Gasp in April of 1973 and, sadly, never reprinted. It is one of the most free-form and independent efforts of the artist considered to be the “best living painter” by Frank Frazetta and who shaped Vampirella’s art style forever. I personally discovered Catherine’s work after she had already passed away, and she has not only been important for me as a trans woman referent in my classics comic library, but for the insistence her work had on three subjects that I deeply appreciate on art: communication, memory and gender.
SPASM, specifically, reaches out to the reader asking “what do you feel (within these characters)?”. The book, dedicated “to Weezie” (Louise Simonson), who had been Catherine’s wife some years prior to its publication, is filled with instantly recognizable visual language around daunting and heart-moving emotions that jump right out of the page, reaching for understanding.
Most of the characters in SPASM are driven by forces greater than themselves to a state of sadness and isolation. Those forces sometimes come from a fracture in time, memory or perception, a certain thing they miss or an apparition in despair. Other times, they are torn into bursts of irrational and stressful violence and pain, like the two cops killing a teenage girl with an automated mechanism designed to do so, or the astronaut that decides to commit suicide driven by both her loneliness and her self-image.
Even when the stories don’t push the shock towards the eye and linger more beautifully onto details and glimpses, a certain agony bursts into the guts of each character. It is a horrendous world to live in, says SPASM, while it tries to arrive at the root of this living and reconcile with memory. And, from that memory, build a bridge.
Catherine examines old bridges and builds new ones with an art style that humanizes the characters and bodies inside it like few comics had done. This is especially relevant when it shows their pain and makes you deal with it. They don’t only feel real and far away from the usually overromanticized and oversexualized look of comic books, but their emotions overflow the eye. In ‘The Bridge’, the sense of familiarity and the things that stay drives a woman’s sense of memory and hope, while the same sense of familiarity gets broken by the visual pass of time.
My favorite story, ‘Luce’, revolves around inaction, impotence and depression, as well as body image, self-perception, and self-definition. It shows how we compare ourselves to others and demean ourselves in the process. The simplicity of a line like “That’s the chair I sit in when I’m just a woman” when thrown by someone too scared to fly an deal with herself arrives somewhere close to my heart, and feels too poignant of what a lot of closeted people and people dealing with self-perception go through.
Overall, SPASM is one of the comic books that has succeeded to make me feel emotions more deeply, and to chew on its words for longer. If you’re lucky to get one of its 20.000 copies or it gets reprinted (as it should), it feels like a necessity to linger on its pages, especially for people interested in storytelling, art, memories or comics in general. I can promise you’re going to get something back.
SUNDAY CLASSICS: A Look At Memory in ‘SPASM’ by Catherine Jeffrey Jones
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