The cover of How Loathsome features an attractive, androgynous figure naked from the waist up with arms wrapped around him/herself. S/he’s wearing black PVC pants, suggesting fetish culture, and appears to be comforting or protecting him/herself from prying gazes. It’s a great summation of the material contained within.
The stories by Ted Naifeh and Tristan Crane explore queer life, drug use, goth clubs, and gender experimentation in San Francisco. In the first chapter, Catherine, the narrator, meets Chloe, a “tall and immaculate” transvestite, at an S&M party when her friend Nick tries to pick her up, not realizing. Catherine clues him in by asking “why is it that the tallest boys decide to be girls?” I began wondering about Catherine, since she also fits the description, as well as her motivations for sharing that wisdom.
There are a lot of well-turned lines like that, brief bon mots that sent me pondering for a good while. Catherine continues her narration with “I wondered how to put her at ease, how not to come off as the person I was.” It’s not clear (and it shouldn’t be) how much of Catherine’s attraction to Chloe is simply based on hoping she’s found a kindred spirit.
She sees them as a pair of “outcast aliens… beautiful monsters.” Life is as much a performance as an experience for these characters, and they want to get out of their heads, seeing themselves from the outside.
These personality scenes are broken up by a greyscale fairy tale, a horror story about not fitting in and fear of leaving the familiar. The art is angular, suiting the often-spiky personalities that populate the pages, and toned in sepia, adding to the otherworldly air. Artist Ted Naifeh’s style makes the characters look attractively inhuman, which matches the way they pride themselves on being freaks.
And that’s just the first chapter. Later ones deal with acid and clubbing and heroin and sex and drag and other ways of avoiding the pain of being oneself. I was impressed by how well this book put me inside the heads of people I would otherwise never know. It raises fascinating questions of identity and belonging.