The cover to Fat Free, Jude Milner and Mary Wilshire's "Amazing All-True Adventures of Supersize Woman," is more than a little ironically misdirecting. Centered on the image of a spandex-clad fat woman confidently flying above the city toward the reader, the graphic deliberately recalls cartoonist Ned Sonntag's fat-acceptance superheroine, Dimensia, even as the text between the covers undercuts Sonntag's original iconic message of self-esteem.
The Jude Milner we see within this 64-page black-and-white graphic novel definitely lacks a Wonder Woman-ly sense of confidence. Interior Jude is a self-flagellating supersize woman who regularly browbeats herself with a phrase she first started using as an eight-year-old: she's a "rooner" who consistently "roons" everything. Jealous of the slender women (who she calls "Ginas") around her, addicted to comfort eating and growing larger as she continues to overeat, Jude spends her young adulthood flitting from uncompleted project to project, "partay"ing at NYC dances and social functions put on by the size acceptance group P.H.A.T. (People Honoring All Themselves – a names-have-been-changed version of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance), all in an attempt at tamping down the memory of two disastrous moments from her childhood. (If you guess that one of these events is a sexual assault, than give yourself a Little Debbie.)
Though she marries and presumably is happy with her hubby Richard (who's credited in the inside of the book as "producer/scriptwriter," leading one to wonder just how much of this book is actually in Jude’s words), she continues to lament her life as a fat woman. Seeing two of her supersized P.H.A.T. compatriots with a walker or wheelchair, she dreads what she sees as her inevitable incapacitation. "It's not beautiful to be an obese invalid," she tells herself, even as she imagines herself standing in a firing squad for being a "traitor" to the size acceptance movement. After a series of failed attempts at self-restraint and group counseling, our heroine ultimately resorts to weight loss surgery to change her life for good.
One of the challenges with reviewing confessional memoirs like Fat Free lies in separating the life from the work, and I have to admit I wasn't always able to do that here. Many of the events and details in Milner's life — childhood sexual assault, use of food to provide a sense of security that circumstances kept her working class parents from providing, a self-perpetuating sense of outsideness — are the stuff of a thousand daytime talk shows, so familiar they've become Doctor Phil-isms. Fat equals history of sexual abuse? Check. Fat people eat all the time? Double check. (In addition to the repeated panels showing Jude compulsively snacking, we're given two scenes showing a group of P.H.A.T. women chowing down.) Fat means miserable. How could it ever be anything else?
That much of Fat Free's readership outside the fat acceptance community would agree with all these overstated premises isn't the point: the issue is that Milner doesn't really show us anything in her life that goes beyond the bounds of conventional pop psych wisdom. Even the book's mildly titillating moments — Jude works as a phone sex voice for a time, chortling over the fact that her customers mistakenly believe they're speaking to a "Gina" — are overly familiar. (Heck, the phone sex bit was once the subject of a Beavis and Butthead short!) Occasionally, the two Milners hit upon a brief fantasy moment that's amusing – I liked the panel where a disgusted Jude imagines tossing intragastric balloons at a wall of medical professionals – but there aren't as many of these as we'd like. Pre-surgery Jude is much too busy calling herself names.
Artist Mary Wilshire (Wimmen's Comics, Red Sonja, Power Pack) illustrates Fat Free in pencils that aren't always well served in the trade paperback printing. Though Richard Milner includes a special pleading intro explaining the rationale behind the use of pencils instead of more traditional inkwork, I'm not completely convinced by 'em. One thing inking can do is magnify compositional and anatomical flaws – and I suspect a big motivation behind keeping the work in pencil was to obscure how difficult it is to construct a comic story around a realistically fat character.
One of the reasons so many mainstream comic characters have the same basic body form resides in the fact that decades of panels featuring mesomorphic body types has created a visual library of poses for nearly every situation. Fat bodies don't behave so predictably, however, and require the artist's constant attention. (One of the things that makes Jaime Hernandez, say, such a wonderful comics artist is his visual appreciation for a variety of body frames.) More than once, I found myself thinking (as in a panel where a Jude who suddenly seems to have lost her breasts is shown cutting fabric for a short-lived dressmaking business), "Waitaminute, did our girl just drop fifty pounds between panels here?"
Still, Wilshire's pencils are livelier than the material they serve. If many mainstream fans unfairly sneer at autobiographical comics for being solipsistic and whiney, it's hard to hold this book up as a counter-argument. We never get a smidgeon of, say, the wonderfully snippy character details that characterize autobio godfather Harvey Pekar’s best work. Only figure in Free to rise above two-dimensions is our narrator.
Too, at the risk of veering into a tangential argument with our narrator, I had a problem with the way she turned the entire NYC size acceptance crowd into a mass chorus slamming her decisions. To be sure, the issue of weight loss surgery can be a contentious one: many plus-sized advocates criticize it for a variety of reasons (none the least of which is the number of serious complications that they've watched friends and lovers experience), but there are others in the community who've chosen the procedure for themselves. We're never shown that in Fat Free, of course, because aside from caricatures recognizable to them-what-knows-'em (hey, look, there's Ned standin' in a row of would-be dancers!), none of the P.H.A.T./N.A.A.F.A crowd is even given a name.
Why should they be? It's not their "Amazing All-True Adventure"…