It’s hard for people to grasp that you weren’t made to fit neatly into one box, and wouldn’t want to anyway. I think in Ireland this was particularly the case, but it happens everywhere. Sometimes cultures enforce this idea of boxes and categories and black and white is enforced in a culture so strongly that you internalise it, and people end up with completely unnecessary complexes and identity crises because they feel they have to choose between two different components of their personality, rather than accepting that they can have and be both.
I kept my art to myself when I was in Ireland, especially when I was in college. I’ve always drawn and painted but I don’t know when it became the driving, motivating passion it is now. I knew though that no one in college would “get it” – they’d think it was just a passive hobby, a phase, or they would demand I decide which I loved more, science or art. “Make up your mind, what do you really want to do with yourself?” Because people prefer you to be black or white, either/or, never both. The first cartoon strip I ever did came from this idea, that you could often be one thing or another and most people would respect you, but try to be both and you’ll be lucky if they even believe you.
A Tyrannosaurus is named for its imagined tyranny, and its status as the ultimate predator is decreed as absolute by a species that came 64 million years after it. The remains of its lethal teeth, the enormous eye sockets that could have given it a hunter’s keen eyes, the large frame and powerful legs that could cover great distance at speed mean that if I stood up at a palaeontologists conference and proposed the idea that T rex was a vegetarian I’d be greeted with outright derision. The two don’t go together. I made a character, Reggie, when I was bored in a mineralogy lecture in third year.
“Reggie” was large, and pink, and the most terrifying land-based predator of the Jurassic era. Unfortunately, he had never felt he quite fitted in with the rest of the Tyrannosaurs gang and after some adolescent soul-searching, decided that he had serious ethical issues with eating meat and that he would become a vegetarian. It was a while before the Reggie comics started to work.
It was four a.m., and I was sitting in a greasy noodle bar, looking out at the rain and noise on George’s Street South after a Wednesday night out “on the gay” as college slang called it. Across the road was The George, from which we had just come, pink neon teacup lit up over its door. Like many of Dublin’s gays, I’d come to love and loath that place in equal complex measure. I’d gone in with one group but had somehow, on the sweaty, packed out dancefloor, found myself in the midst of another group, and when we’d stopped grinding and bouncing to Lady Gaga and Britney Spears at the end of the night, we all stuck together for the traditional foray to Charlie’s for whatever greasy goodness we could afford. We’d been dancing together for two hours; we didn’t all know each other, but being young and this being Dublin, we went with it.
“So what are you, then, Annemarie? You don’t look gay” I looked at her and saw an attempt to conceal youth and insecurity by excessive alcohol and bravado and even more make-up than “Tess Tosterone” and “Miss Labelled.” “Bi. And Marianne, not Annemarie,” I said. A wave of tiredness suddenly hit me, washing away the thrill of the drag show, the shots, and the dancefloor, and leaving me suddenly shy and awkward in the company of strangers who were still on high from what was, I suspected, their first daring foray into a gay club which for them was a zoo rather than a participation zone.
“Don’t believe in it!” she loudly declared, slapping the table and then clumsily wiping her lips, smearing tarty red lipstick and black bean sauce all over her orange face. “You either are or you’re not and that’s all there is to it.”
I knew what would come next. The grilling. This group of drunken party girls, who had been so much fun to dance and laugh with earlier, would decide they had adopted my confused little self and that in their drunken well-meaning they could help. They’d ask me questions all about my (nonexistant) love life, my (seriously unsatisdfactory) sex life, ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, how far I’d gone with girls and how far I’d gone with boys, and expect intimite details I wouldn’t tell my closest friends to be given out freely to satisfy their shocked curiosity. At every stage the jury would deliberate and at the end I’d be declared straight or gay.
I suddenly felt crowded out, strangely intimidated, and very lonely. Hungry and broke as I was, I left half a plate of soft noodles behind and stepped out into the drizzle without saying goodbye.
I walked home in the rain and by the time I got in, the sky was lightening to grey. I started a strip where Veggie Reggie decides to “come out” to the rest of the dinos, and I got so engrossed in it that I lost that day. The paleo practical, the structural geology assignment, the information session about our summer mapping projects, all disappeared from my mind until all of those pictures were done. And that was when Reggie came alive in my mind as a character who would stay with me for a long time, and live many adventures and misadventures at the mercy of my pencils.
The only thing was that the more Veggie Reggie strips I made, the better they became, and my frustration built.
Cartoons shouldn’t be kept in a box under a bed, or on a wall in a bedroom for one person to see. I made them for other people’s eyes, to entertain and sometimes, to provoke thought. But even in an odd burst of confidence when I felt that my cartoons, my art in general, was worthy of an audience and could receive one, I just didn’t know where to start. I knew I did desperately want to show myself to the world – I just didn’t know if I would ever be brave enough.