"I don't want to do any of this sort of work as a girl.
"No amount of money, okay."
Oh, this is such a lonely book, however populated.
The pale-coloured panels in their rigid grid are surrounded by so much white space that it echoes, while the snapshot short stories from Felina's first-person perspective are themselves broken up by monochromatic landscapes, some rural, others suburban, but always eerie and empty. They are cold, often beautiful but bleak.
"Each day of this. I'm just part of someone else's day."
There is a huge sense of isolation, for not all conversations can be classed as communication, and Felina has erected barriers or set herself boundaries like the above to protect her. Some things she simply does not want to talk about. We don't even learn her real name until close to the end: she only lets Tom in while on her way out, waiting on a plane to take her back home to Michigan.
"I came here because you only know what I let you know about me, yeah?
"You don't know enough to hurt me."
And Felina is indeed so very vulnerable throughout. Don't get me wrong, she can take care of herself - physically at least, thank god - but the very fact that she has to eye a lampshade and assess its efficacy as a weapon in case her client gets violent says it all.
Felina, I should probably point out, is a trans woman earning her way in Seattle as a sex worker, and this graphic novel - some of which you might already have come across in the pages of the ISLAND anthology curated by Emma Rios and Brandon Graham - is as explicit as that implies, far more so than OMAHA THE CAT DANCER to which artist Remy Boydell pays tribute in the back.
Thankfully none of Felina's nightmare scenarios manifest themselves, but you cannot help but fear for her safety because even off work - walking down the pavement, head bowed after being stared at and muttered about in a diner - she receives bigoted abuse from some stupid car mechanic who, like any bully, presumes that they'll get away with it, almost certainly because he has in the past. This time he doesn't, but any sense of temporary victory which Felina or the reader may or may not feel from the outburst of violence is both short-lived and pyrrhic, for the damage has been done and the final few panels alone in the shower are devastating.
'Cut Throat' is a particularly powerful piece of storytelling, carefully composed from start to finish. It begins so promisingly, so positively in friendship, kind words and sex for pleasure. It's not all idyllic, as you'll see, but hey. It's on the fourth transitional page that Felina finds herself sitting alone, comfortable in her nakedness, reminding us exactly where she is in her own transition. But as she makes her way to that diner - initially through warm, autumnal colours - we're shown a close-up of her cheek which is very closely shaved but still peppered with tiny flecks of black stubble. The final panel on the page pulls out to reveal the effect of its feel on Felina as she strokes it, gingerly. Thanks to Boydell's immaculately judged portrait we are left in no doubt as to the severity of the blow, both to her immediate ease and long-term optimism.
It is then that we enter the diner with is whispering clientele, thence the pavement and the malicious mechanic.
It's not all melancholy, though, I promise. Your expectations will be overturned again and again. Tom's first encounter with Felina, for example, proves him to be as comically dim-witted as he is later determined to be kind, supportive and attempting to understand Felina's complexity. People are complicated, relationships are complicated and that argument on holiday hit home. Keeping everyone happy can be difficult. Experiences will be revisited (like that argument on holiday) because the structure of the whole is not necessarily linear.
What Perez and Boydell have crafted is candid, explicit, humane, tender, painful and actually quite deliciously blunt.
I've mentioned before the importance of representation (THE SECRET LOVES OF GEEKS and BINGO LOVE, for example) and why it matters so much, but in addition diverse perspectives are essential if we're going to understand and so empathise with each other a bit better.