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dolltopiaAbby Denson
Green Candy Press
$15 (Less at Amazon)

Reviewed by Joe Palmer

Dolltopia is indy comics artist Abby Denson’s second graphic novel. Where Tough Love, her first work, recounted the sweet love of two teenaged boys and the obstacles they faced, Dolltopia’s themes of non-conformity and self-expression are issues that any LGBT person has or will at some point be faced to deal with. What better choice to explore these issues than using stamped and molded dolls assembled on factory lines whose smiling faces are frozen atop bodies with restricted mobility with more often than not nothing more than the clothes on their backs?

And so the quest for Dolltopia starts for one Kitty Ballerina doll as she asks herself the basic existentialist questions during her assembly line birth, and the realization that there must be more to her life than simply being paired with a Soccer Scotty doll as her new little girl owner has done. Kitty wastes no time making her break and once free she runs into Army Jim, a fellow renegade (he hates to fight like the other Army Jim’s), on his quest to reach Dolltopia, a place where dolls can be free to make their own choices. Dolltopia seems like exactly what a lot of us are hoping for and working towards.

Denson explores the notion of chosen families as Kitty and Jim survey this new world they meet other dolls such as Candy X and Candy O, a pair of former Darling Candy dolls that may or may not be girlfriends depending on your reading, who welcome them and amiably act as guides and mentors with their clothing boutique Jigsaw acting as an unofficial meeting place since labeling anything “official” smacks of conformity. In short order they’re settling in and meeting new dolls like the Doctor who specializes in plastic surgery and Kewpie, the androgynous manager of the Toybox hostel where Kitty and Jim are staying.

Telling a story through dolls may seem a questionable choice, but I would beg to differ. Consider how entrenched dolls are, not just for toy crazed American kids, but across the world. They may be toys, but they’re also tools for teaching socially accepted standards whether good or bad. Kenneth and Mamie Clark were African American psychologists who published three major papers in 1939 and 1940. The purpose of their research was to learn and document how children’s self-perception related to their race. Children attending segregated schools in Washington DC and integrated schools in New York were their subjects. The Clarks learned that African American children often preferred white dolls and these children assigned positive virtues to the color white (good, pretty, nice) while thinking of “black” in negative terms (bad, ugly).

The Clarks would later testify in several school desegregation cases, including Briggs v. Elliot that would become part of the famous Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court Case of 1954 that found segregation unconstitutional. More recently in 2006 young filmmaker Kiri Davis decided to revisit the Clarks’ research, making it the subject of “A Girl Like Me“. Sadly, her results clearly mirror the findings of the Clarks.

On a personal and exponentially smaller note, turning through the first few pages recalled a memory from first grade long ago. A girl (her name was Janice Radcliffe) from my class had invited me over and we were in her back yard. she had Barbi and Ken dolls. Ken was thrust into my hand and Janice enthusiastically made known her expectation that we were going to play house. Shy kid that I was, the only thing to do was give in, even though I thought two boy dolls would make playing house a lot more fun! Even a 6 year old me knew not to tell Janice that, let alone anyone else. Conform, little boy!

Unlike the findings of Clarks’ research and Ms. Davis’ film, Denson’s script stays on the upbeat, its underlying message one of hope and action, thanks primarily to an optimistic, determined, and empowered Kitty aided by Jim with his unconditional support, while addressing several  difficult topics. The opposing paradigms of gay liberation versus gay assimilation come to the forefront when the Candies, Kitty, and Jim see conformist Ben and Mandie dolls (who brought their Fantasy Home to Dolltopia) during their outing to Dancemania. Mimicking humans is insulting to the Candies. It’s no surprise then that they’ve devised a plan to make a complete break from all human influence by striking at the doll factory itself. When the outcome is unexpected it comes down to how to choose to look at life’s challenges and obstacles: either you can become angry and depressed or stay positive and remain true to your ideals in spite of setbacks.

That message becomes a painful badge of honor when Soccer Scotty experiences a similar epiphany to Kitty and escapes from his Fantasy Home prison to find Dolltopia and suffers a dog mauling (Step out of your place and you’ll have to deal with the consequences!). What Scotty finds in Dolltopia after his rescue by Mr. M is friendship and admiration, and perhaps the love of Sailor Sammie. All their personal struggles pale when Dolltopia’s very existence comes into dire jeopardy. Imperiled by discovery from humans, the entire community takes its biggest gamble and prove that anything worth living for is worth fighting for.

Denson’s Tough Love is perhaps best appreciated by teens who are coming out, Dolltopia will speak to anyone questioning gender roles and trying to find their place in the world.

Dolltopia is available from Amazon.

April 10, 2010
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