Quick to Bruise, Slow to Heal

Art Fag, for lack of a better word, is a confessional comic, outlining the internal thoughts and feelings of the author, Sina Sparrow. As he becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his romantic attachments, the series itself becomes looser and more abstract, suggesting a rejection of reality, of an escape into the imagination. By the time we reach the final issue, these fantasy images have completely supplanted those which precede it; in this case, the interior world has clearly triumphed. But this is not about Sparrow’s reluctance to face reality. His narrative journey is a symbolic one, leading us – as Joseph Campbell would say – “from the world of common day into a world of supernatural wonder.” This seems to be the overarching message of Art Fag: that a superficial existence is not as satisfying as a painful attempt at individuation.

When the series begins, Sparrow is exhausted by the apparent emptiness of his sexual experiences. He describes his life as ‘lonely’ and ‘difficult’, and seems resigned to feeling disappointed by his encounters with men, even when they fuel his creativity. He spends a lot of time studying, drawing and watching movies, but he is also preoccupied with his search for love, tempered only by his constant dissatisfaction with the men he comes into contact with. There is a man he refuses to see again because of his inherent cynicism; a man who never texts back after they sleep together; a man who has sex more violently than is appreciated. But, as is often the case within gay literature, Sparrow’s search for love is actually a search for self-acceptance, a projection of the inner conflict he feels daily. In this way, the men he meets act more like signposts, as milestones punctuating his journey towards self-actualisation.

This is further exemplified in issues #3, #4 and #5. Instead of following the comic-as-diary structure of the first two issues, the style permutates into a sketchbook of men that Sparrow sees around London. In part, these images are used to exacerbate his own feelings of loneliness, explaining that men often ignore him, or that they think themselves too cool or pretty to give him attention. But there are other times when Sparrow becomes an omniscient narrator figure, imagining what these men are thinking or feeling. A drawing of one is captioned, “He was riding the night bus home, feeling mad at all the cute boys who’d ignored him that night.” Another states, “He was weary and disappointed by his experiences with men.” In these images, the men are sensitive, wounded types, all of whom are looking for something greater than the sum of their experiences. For Sparrow, imagining what the men he desires are feeling is an act of self-development, a gradual dismissal of his otherwise self-regarding nature. Of course, the ways in which he depicts these men is reflective of his own emotional state, but the empathy he extends towards them seems to ease his dissatisfaction. By giving them a voice, he discovers that his is not the most important; that others feel the same way he does.

But this is not to say that Sparrow becomes increasingly engaged in the world around him. Art Fag deals exclusively with the journey inwards, with the progression towards actualisation. As such, the men’s primary function within the narrative is to act as a projection of Sparrow’s psyche, illuminating things about himself that are too painful or difficult to admit. By imagining what these men are feeling, Sparrow also reveals the source of his displeasure: that his fear of never being loved is equal to his fear of being unable to love himself.

While Art Fag looks to real experiences to provide source material, Sparrow also incorporates a great deal of mythological imagery throughout the text, using symbols and metaphors to present his own life as a kind of monomyth. In Greek mythology, Cassandra is given the gift of prophecy after Apollo spits in her mouth. In issue #2, Sparrow asks a man to spit in his mouth while having sex, to which the man replies, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t like that.” Sparrow is desperate to know what the future holds for him, to know whether or not he will ever find a man he can truly love, but his partner’s refusal to give him this gift leaves these desires unfulfilled. Unlike Cassandra, he has no way of seeing the future; he remains unsure as to how he should find happiness. The golden apple of discord is used as an epigraph in issue #4, dedicating the book to “the most beautiful one.” In mythology, we know that this apple caused a decade-long war, and the image is used in much the same way here. While Sparrow seeks someone beautiful to love, his search leads consistently to an excess of negative emotions: fear, jealousy, detachment and disappointment. Though his intentions are pure (like those of Paris in the myth), his romantic attachments only increase his inner turmoil.

Similarly, much of Greek mythology is built around the Katabasis principle, a narrative in which the central character undergoes a symbolic death and rebirth. Persephone, Orpheus and Dionysus all experience a descent into the underworld, only to return as a more complete version of themselves. In Art Fag, the descent has already happened; Sparrow is already recovering from a series of difficult experiences. It is also important to note that most of Art Fag is told retrospectively, with Sparrow looking back and reflecting on what has already passed. The narrative is often disrupted by moments in which he finds himself “thinking about the last time [he had] sex,” expressing his dissatisfaction for these meaningless encounters. But, like the figures of Greek mythology, Sparrow is also determined to progress and develop, constantly moving forward through the underworld of his own psyche.

But Sparrow does not exclusively use Greek mythology to reflect his feelings. As the series progresses, Christian iconography is also utilised to reflect his narrative journey. Issue #5 – which deals almost exclusively with the imagined feelings of other people – ends with an image of the sacred heart, wrapped in thorns and emblazoned with the legend, “Quick to bruise, slow to heal.” In Christian terms, the sacred heart is a symbol for Christ’s compassion and empathy, and is used as a devotional tool for those looking to become more empathetic. In Art Fag, this image is used for two reasons. First, as an indication that Sparrow is learning to be more compassionate towards others as he strives towards self-fulfilment; and secondly, as a reminder of his own emotional injuries. Though Sparrow becomes less self-involved as the series continues, he stops to remind us that his painful experiences have enabled these developments, that fulfilment can only be achieved by embracing one’s past mistakes.

Issue #6, the most explicitly non-naturalistic, is also the most overtly sexual, and contains more examples of Judeo-Christian imagery. Here, angels are contrasted with demons, suggesting that sexuality can be both a sexual and spiritual practice. There has always been a correlation between snakes and the male genitalia, and issue #6 is filled with phalluses of various shapes and sizes. In his exploration of the unconscious, Jung explains that “the snake is a frequent counterpart of the hero. There are numerous accounts of their affinity…therefore, the presence of a snake [is] an indication of a hero-myth.” By depicting penises alongside such explicitly Biblical images, Sparrow subverts the traditional connotations of base sexuality, suggesting instead that these are symbols of desire and temptation that must be negotiated. These phalluses, then, are emblematic of Sparrow’s spiritual journey. Like a snake, he must slough off his negative sexual attachments before reaching maturation.

As the title suggests, art plays an enormous role throughout the series, and Sparrow often references films and song lyrics to further express his emotional state. In issue #6, an image of two naked men is placed beneath a Kate Bush lyric: “Maybe he doesn’t love me, I just took a trip on my love for him.” In issue #2, Sparrow’s maudlin feelings about the end of summer are expressed with lyrics from Lana Del Rey’s Summertime Sadness. Although these lyrics are used to quickly evoke an intended emotion, they also reflect Sparrow’s spiritual growth throughout the series. According to Joseph Campbell, “Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization.” For Sparrow, art is a frame of reference, a tool used to explore his most private thoughts and feelings; but it is also a way for him to feel connected to other people. Like the structure of the series itself, Sparrow’s spiritual development is first initiated by extending empathy towards those around him.

In a similar way, Sparrow’s friends and family members are featured heavily throughout the series, often acting as mentors or spirit guides, as envoys on his journey from innocence into experience. They are frequently given full page portraits, offering advice such as, “You worry too much about what those trendy boys think,” or, “Try not to get too obsessed with him.” These pages punctuate the text and give an insight into Sparrow’s non-sexual relationships, but they also perform the function of wish fulfilment within the narrative. On one level, Sparrow seeks a man to care for him the way his friends do, but at the same time, he wishes he could treat himself in a kinder, more sympathetic way. If actualisation is attained through self-love and self-knowledge, then his friends give him the confidence required to overcome his initial fears, at least until he can find a way to do it for himself.

The final issue in the series is arguably the most interesting, largely because it differs so dramatically from those that precede it. Although the series becomes less occupied with Sparrow’s day-to-day experiences, issue #6 delves fully into the realms of fantasy, creating a landscape that is populated with a host of mythical creatures. A man flexing his muscles sprouts giant antlers from his skull; one man boasts an enormous pair of butterfly wings, while another – tattooed with a pentagram – dances in a hellish pit of flames. If “the agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth,” then these images, with their sado-masochistic connotations, clearly exemplify Sparrow’s psychosexual development. While fantasy was used as way to escape his problems in the first two issues of the series, in issue #6, Sparrow celebrates these parts of his psyche, revelling in desires he once considered sinful. Although the images here are dark, even satanic, it is never once implied that they are damaging or unhealthy; they simply reflect the darkest depths of his desires. The series ends with a portrait of a fallen angel saying, “Time to fly…but I’ll see you soon, handsome.” Of course, this image is a kind of wish fulfilment for Sparrow, but the angel wears the alchemical symbol for air around his neck: a sign of intellect and rational thought. In this way, Sparrow has learned to marry his inner fantasies with his external experiences; his descent into his own psyche has allowed him to fully embrace the repressed, perverse sides of his personality.

Although Art Fag is, superficially, a straightforward diary-style comic, the progression in tone and style suggests an internal progression for the central character, charting his painful development towards self-actualisation. Drawing heavily on art, mythology and religion, Sparrow presents his own life story as an example of the monomyth, crossing the threshold of his own personal limitations in order to realise his true potential. But this is not to say that Art Fag is difficult to relate to. As the narrative becomes more abstract, it is clear that the comic is largely concerned with ambiguities; it is questioning and explorative, rather than instructing and definitive. But perhaps, by relating to Sparrow’s journey, the reader can also allow themselves to undergo their own Katabasis experience, to journey down into the darkness, to poke at wounds; and then, hopefully, to allow themselves to heal.

To buy a copy of Art Fag #1-6, visit: https://www.etsy.com/shop/thatsparrowboy

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