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Leela Corman Explores Trauma And Grief In Victory Parade

Victory Parade
Leela Corman
Schocken Books
$29.00
176 pages

A casually posed skeletal faced bathing beauty astride a girder greets you from the cover, a sort of solo Lunch Atop A Skyscraper but in heels a la Ginger Rogers. A lit cigarette seemingly creates a voluminous amount of dark smoke. Her feet point to emaciated corpses. To the right a trio uniformed women perform a task. You might wonder what this story is about. The simple answer is Leela Corman’s Victory Parade is the story of three women living in 1943 who at a glance may appear to lead mundane lives. However, their lives in Corman’s hands are anything but commonplace.

The central characters are: Rose Arensburg, her young daughter Eleanor, and Ruth who has lived with Rose and her husband for so many years that Eleanor can’t remember a time when Ruth wasn’t a presence in their modest Brooklyn apartment. 1943 is a time of changing norms in America. Day in and day out, a constant gauntlet of leering men stand outside the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s main gate shouting cat calls at Rose and other women as they prepare to do their jobs as welders, mechanics, and technicians to build war ships. Women taking on jobs like these would be unheard of if not for the vacancies left by the staggering number of men fighting in World War II. Until recently Ruth was just another set of hands at the Navy Yard but now serves up “gristle to mashers” at a local diner where she’ll encounter a man who puts her on an unexpected path.

What piqued Corman’s curiosity and sent her on the journey to create this story is the ways that people attempt to cope with sorrow and trauma, be it of a personal nature or on a massive scale experienced by countless people. By surveying their outward lives and venturing into their psyches to explore how and why we do things to ourselves and to each other. Rose dreads her husband Sam’s eventual return from fighting in Germany because the unhappy status quo of their marriage will return to haunt her. In the meantime while Rose has taken advantage of more personal freedom in her life to have a secret affair with George Finlay, a maimed war veteran. In contrast, women at the naval factory take turns consoling those whose worst fear comes true – the dreaded letter confirming their husbands have been killed in service.

A moment of happiness. No one suspects Rose has a secret.

Hollywood movies gave countless numbers of people momentary relief and flickers of hope for the return of a better life throughout the Depression and wartime years. Take for example Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here with its glamour, stunning choreography, and Carmen Miranda’s unforgettable scene performing her Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat. It’s a perfect choice for Corman to illustrate this ritual with Ruth, and Eleanor in tow, using it to distract herself after fending off two repulsive sailors on shore leave. No matter how glitzy the musical numbers may be, a movie is only a fleeting salve for the justifiable anger Ruth feels over leaving her family behind to flee Nazi Germany. It’s this same anger that puts Ruth on the path to becoming a wrestler. Corman handles this transformation in a way that makes it a natural progression for the character. A sweat drenched Ruth in her fighting togs is both magnificent and terrifying. Her unleashed fury in the fight ring earns her the ironic nicknames “Ruthless Ruby, the Hun Heel” and “Killer Kraut” which appeal to the baser instincts of many working class Brooklynites sitting in the bleachers. Professional women wrestlers was an intriguing surprise to me and, a personal aside if I may, made for some conversation with my wrestling aficionado brother.

Deeply seated anger comes to the surface each time Ruby enters the ring

While Corman is unsparing in her examination of her characters she is also empathetic to them with the exception of one. We learn about Rose’s aspirations and how her unhappy marriage is a product of the time. A moment of emotional vulnerability reveals George Finlay’s feelings for Rose. Both husband Sam and lover George secretly harbor doubt and regret. The contempt Sam holds for Rose makes him instantly unlikeable and then Corman makes the reader feel compassionate toward him via a flashback scene illustrating some of the atrocities he witnessed after helping to liberate a camp (see the following paragraph). Young Eleanor who is decidedly the story’s happiest character is just now becoming more aware of the hate and bigotry will come to be sharply stung by loss and grief. Despite the mounting tension at home since her father’s return she will try make their familial relationship better. A scene set in 1936 Berlin reveals some of the degrading means to which a teenage Ruth and her mother were forced to resort in order to survive day to day. Meyer Birnbaum is the man who “discovers” Ruth and becomes her manager. An immigrant himself, Birnbaum understands Ruth’s rage but this doesn’t make his efforts to whip up wrestling fans’ animosity to make more money at the expense of Ruth’s dignity any less unscrupulous. Pearl is a no nonsense talking welder under Rose’s supervision. Through Pearl’s character Corman gives readers a glimpse into what the lives of queer people were like in the United States and across the world when there was little choice but to live closeted lives or risk losing everything. Oblivious to Pearl’s secret, fellow worker Frank feels entitled to make repeated and unwelcomed advances on her, hoping to wear her down until she relents. Frank is the afore mentioned exception to how Corman handles her characters. Frank’s role is necessary to move the story forward. His actions and their results are simply insidious and despicable, making him completely undeserving of a back story to explain his behavior let alone redemption.

Pearl may be

The daily and emotional lives of her characters provided ample material for Victory Parade to be the challenging story that it is. Corman wanted to do more though so to give herself the opportunity for more creative expression she created an ethereal realm where the living meet the dead. Every member of the cast has passes through a portal to this otherworldly plane where they wearily carry a precious parcel or stumble across a surreal garden of human body parts or encounter astral guides waiting to usher them along. The closing chapter devoted to Sam and fellow soldiers liberating a camp is deeply disturbing one. Forlorn dead victims coax Sam to the other side to implore his aid in conveying messages to their loved ones. Searching the camp for survivors, Sam and other troops remain unaware of the spirits of the dead who hover overhead waiting for passage. In one spectacularly rendered scene Corman takes inspiration from Busby Berkeley’s choreography to illustrate spirits performing an elaborate ritual to banish into nothingness a newly dead Nazi officer.

Sam is borne away to the spirit land.

What might be learned from characters whose lives are set in a time that seems far away and yet so close as watching a classic movie? We have more in common with our grandparents and their parents than we realize. We may not go to theaters as often as people in the 1940s did yet we stream movies and shows at home hoping to escape from stress or boredom. Until recently the progress of rights felt certain and guaranteed yet we know in today’s America there are fascists who take the Dobbs decision as a “full speed ahead” message to take away every right which has been fought for and won. Pearl and Marlene pursued their romance in extreme secrecy and today we have people on the far right for whom putting us all back into the collective closet would be their “merciful” option. Never mind the amount of propaganda aimed at we the public, various assaults on the rule of law, book bans, anti trans legislation, and every other concerted effort to destroy democracy and disrupt, distract, and wear us down to our very core. We’re taking trips, buying new cars, high end furniture, and expensive phones and digital gadgets again. The Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020 is in the rearview mirror so it’s all good, right?

Perhaps that was too much of a digression but does not this question of how we handle grief and trauma have a connection to repeating mistakes in history?

As I read and flipped through several times Victory Parade I wondered about possible influences on Corman’s art. I was certain it was a German Expressionist artist though the only name that came to mind was Oscar Kokoschka until I found my copy of Sergiusz Michalski’s New Objectivity. Funny how the mind can work because the artist I’d been thinking of was Otto Dix. During his four years as an artillery gunner in the first World War Dix witnessed first hand brutality and senseless violence and death. After the war Dix concentrated his unsparing style on documenting social turmoil of the Weimar Republic period. Corman pays tribute to Dix with homages to two Dix paintings: The Skat Players and Der Krieg. Michalski’s book includes a single work by artist Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler who was imprisoned in a mental institution and murdered in 1940 under the pretext of being a degenerate artist. The watercolor portrait titled Lissy was completed in 1931 and I see similarities in style between it and Corman’s as well. Records indicate Lissy was a real person who was also a sex worker as countless women before and after her resort to as a means of survival.

As a physical object Victory Parade has quite a presence. The hardbound case coupled with oversized dimensions (9 1/2 X 11) give the story another layer of substance. The endpapers with a kaleidoscopic image of Ruthie in the wrestling ring whispers of a Busby Berkeley dance number. Less noticeable though certainly important is the book’s sewn binding that will make this book last for years and years. None of which is to say that the story itself will be any less captivating and challenging if read digitally but if storage and money are not factors you might consider the print edition.

Victory Parade is a demanding, unsettling, at times celebratory, and provocative story. Readers who appreciate character driven pieces and historical settings will find this story of interest. Of course anyone who has read Corman’s prior graphic novels will find this to be equally engaging and worthwhile.

Victory Parade was released on April 2nd, 2024. Look for a copy in comic shops with a strong graphic novel section. Comic Shop Locator can help you find one. Check your local book store or give them this ISBN number to make ordering a copy easier. You can also order from Bookshop or click on “Choose a Bookstore” to find a store near you. Amazon has copies if all else fails. This is a Gay League affiliate link for which the site will earn a small commission while this one is not.

May 8, 2024
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