OPERATION MARGARINE is the new comic from NURSE NURSE cartoonist Katie Skelly. The story is pretty straightforward: Margarine Litres is a rich girl running away from home and Bon-Bon is a “tuff” girl who has recently vowed to stop going with married men. It lacks the almost acrobatic narrative of NURSE NURSE, which was juggling a ton of stuff at once, I feel, but makes up for it with this bare-bone, really stripped down and clean A-to-B storytelling. Marge and Bon-Bon ride motorcycles, eat at diners, and get into trouble. It’s a mostly straightforward drama with some very light crime elements, and Skelly draws on some Art Film influences—like Kenneth Anger’s SCORPIO RISING, which may be unintentional and I just read a lot of people who are seeing the same stuff as me here. It’s a step-up from NURSE NURSE, which is a sci-fi comic that I liked a lot, but really only because OPERATION MARGARINE feels a little more intentional in places, and it’s a bit more of a closed loop—though, I do think the open-endedness of NURSE NURSE really plays off that books BARBARELLA and Golden Age sci-fi influences.
But while NURSE NURSE was a little more a narratively gray book, OPERATION MARGARINE plays with binary concepts, both visually and characters—but who is the black and who is the white is intentionally obfuscated. The page opens with this establishing shot of both characters, which textually defines the characters and immediately sets them up as having vastly different personalities and lives; it establishes a seemingly diametric opposition. But as the book goes on the characters play off those expectations, and as you learn more about these characters the more you’re surprised by them. Margarine isn’t necessarily the clean-cut rich girl that the first page posits, and Bon-Bon isn’t the sincerely menacing biker chick that you think. But I like that Skelly herself really plays into those surface level differences by manipulating the stark, binary colors (for lack of a better term) of the book and frames Margarine as this wispy, pure, clean woman—she’s mostly white on white, whereas Bon-Bon’s character is more black on white—and Bon-Bon as this block of thick, black ink. It adds a visual component to that undermining of expected character traits.
I think that’s an extension of Katie Skelly’s natural aesthetic. And she has such a command of black-and-white comics; it worked really well in NURSE NURSE, but really wowed me in OPERATION MARGARINE. The fact that she only utilizes these two extremes—pure light and the absence of light—gives the book this binary look that’s immediately striking. It helps to delineate certain objects and facial features—there’s a scene where Margarine and Bon-Bon are sitting around a campfire and Skelly does this cool thing where she manipulates depth (and plays around with hues of light in this really difficult-to-articulate way) with only black and white. It’s an effect that helps to block off and frame certain aspects of the composition, and it creates a starkness that has a heightening, sharpening effect on simple, basic stuff.
It gives OPERATION MARGARINE that elliptical, almost-elusive texture that a Godard film has. Which is really cool, because I get the feeling that that’s—maybe not Godard specifically but more, like, French New Wave in general—the sort of thing that Skelly was going for. Just the way that Skelly renders smoke, for example, is thin and loose; it has this ethereal quality, which causes it to become like wallpaper on the wall that is the background, but there’s also a matter-of-factness to its inclusion. It’s a lot like the way Alain Delon smokes in the opening scene of Jean-Pierre Melville’s LE SAMOURAI; it doesn’t call attention to itself, but it’s also factored into the composition and is a manipulated aspect of mis-en-scene. And there are a lot of elements like that in OPERATION MARGARINE. Skelly really only deals in opaque blacks, and she uses that to give Bon-Bon this really striking, bold look. And what that really comes down to is her black hair and black jacket framing her face, which creates this concentric contrast within contrast that makes her pop even more on the backgrounds, which are almost completely white.
Cartoonist and writer about comics Sarah Horrocks talked about OPERATION MARGARINE as having these panels that kick like power chords, strummed and left to reverberate around the room. And I think there’s definitely something there. Beyond having this punker iconography and these punker characters, I think Skelly brings that punk rock or even just pop ethos to bear on comics: you strip the music down to three chords and you build all your stuff with just those three chords, ‘cause that’s all you need. And that’s really the core of OPERATION MARGARINE. Skelly isn’t making use of these really complicated or complex structures or styles of rendering. Her aesthetic is bare-bones, borderline minimalistic, but she’s able to take that and build her ish up to convey this quintessential idea of cool, which is equal parts 8 ½, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!. She’s mixing and remixing these really elementary traits to create this interesting complexity out of disarming simplicity. It makes her linework feel really efficient in the way that Alex Toth’s is, which is a big up to Skelly and an advantage that she’s got over many of her peers. It lends an ease and an edge to the book that assures me that this book was not as easy to bring into the world as it sometimes looks.
I think that Katie Skelly is a really dope creator, and it’s nice to see her taking a lot of the stuff that worked well in NURSE NURSE but not trying to ape herself or tread that same ground. I like that she’s pushing it towards new genres with new characters and really drawing on some obscure and esoteric influences within those genres.
A veteran of comics retailing, Shea Hennum is a Texas-based writer whose criticism has appeared at Bleeding Cool, Comical Musings, and The Comics Alternative. His fiction has appeared in places like Loser City, The Fringe Magazine, and Schlock, and his writing about comics will be featured in upcoming issues of Keatinge & Del Duca's Shutter from Image Comics.
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