By Zoe Tunnell
I’m a lesbian. That probably doesn’t come as a shock to anyone remotely familiar with me or my work, I never stop yelling about it. The reason for yelling, however, is because before coming out and embracing my identity as a queer woman, I just didn’t understand how vital that same identity is for me. Back in The Before Times when I stubbornly kept my closet door shut and pretended I was a straight man, romance and love were things I understood but never truly felt. My relationship with my partner (which predates Zoe and lasts to this day, love you sweetheart) was just the latest in a line of relationships where I truly thought I understood what love was, but hadn’t begun to truly grasp it.
Now, 2 years on, everything has changed. Love–raw, wild, ground-shaking love–defines every part of my life. I’ve never felt closer to my partner, seeing women loving women in stories is something that fills me with a joy I never understood before, as does sapphic heartbreak and loss, in turn, shatter me into a thousand pieces. In a good way. I’m a lesbian and that is as vital of a part of me and my view on the world as any other. Which is precisely why She Would Feel the Same and Don’t Go Without Me knocked me on my ass from the very first pages.
It isn’t that either book (both from indie comic publishing powerhouse Shortbox) is bad, or – god forbid – not gay as all hell, it’s that I wasn’t prepared to be emotionally devastated and left reassessing my own relationship with memory and love. Going in, I didn’t expect the two books to pair particularly well. She Would Feel the Same, by Emma Hunsinger, is a scratchy, loose diary-comic-styled account of the aftermath of a 7-year romance ending on unusually amicable and sudden terms. Don’t Go Without Me, by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, is a triptych of fantastical, gorgeously detailed tales of love and loss, memory, and the unknown future. They stand alone as wonderful pieces of art but are a special experience when enjoyed together.
She Would Feel the Same is a story of expectations. When Chloe and Phoebe’s 7-year long relationship ends without tearful heartbreak, a scream-filled plate-smashing fight, or any sort of betrayal, no one in Chloe’s life can believe it. A romance lasting nearly 10 years ending with a simple decision and handshake? Impossible. No matter how many times Chloe insists that’s what happened, people tell her that there has to be something she doesn’t remember. That she can’t be as okay as she’s letting on.
As Chloe attempts to move on, going on a series of painful dates and attempting to just live her normal life, she finds herself revisiting her romance with Phoebe and whether there is something she missed. Yet time and time again, with every memory we see there isn’t anything overlooked. Every memory, ranging from their first meeting at a house party to quiet moments mundane moments of love to getting fingered in the law section of a Books-A-Million paints an honest portrait of a relationship filled with love, affection, and passion that just reached a mutual endpoint. So why can’t Chloe stop questioning it? Because all she has is her memories and she doesn’t feel like she can trust them.
The most potent moment of this all-too-familiar crisis comes on one of those painful dates, a trip to the ballet. Her unnamed date is a patron of the arts and scored front row seats, but Chloe becomes immediately distracted by the view she has into the wings of the stage. The ballerinas seem every inch the perfect, shining living monuments to art and execution as they perform, but the second they are out of sight they collapse into a heaving, sweating messes straining at the immense effort of their artwork. If these people, who have spent their entire lives training to be perfect, are human and shaken in their private moments how could she be so composed about her life splitting in two? There has to be something wrong, and if Chloe doesn’t remember it, then maybe she is what’s wrong.
While Chloe’s existential journey comes to a satisfying and low-key conclusion following a bronchitis-fueled fever dream, the questions asked by Don’t Go Without Me are far messier and lingered with me to the point where I’m still wrestling with them as I write this piece.
The first of the three stories within DGWM, sharing its title, follows an unnamed woman as she and her girlfriend Alemandra cross over into a spirit-filled otherworld but find themselves separated upon arrival. In her journey to find Alemandra, our heroine ends up falling prey to the most classic of fae tricks: losing her memory of what she was searching for.
With each interaction with spirits like the biblically angelic and demonic denizens of a crowded bar and a cart-towing bandaged trader known only as The Butcher, she unwittingly trades away every memory she has of Alemandra simply by describing her in hopes that someone recognized her. At the start of her journey, she oh-so-lesbianly describes Alemandra in exquisite detail as a beautiful artist with licorice-colored hair and hazel eyes like honey on toast, who she wishes she could wear like jewelry if only to feel her on her skin every moment of the day.
By the end, she cannot remember Alemandra’s name, her face, or even that they are lovers. What saves this from being a heartbreaking tale of losing every piece of a person that you’ve taken into your heart is when Alemandra finds our heroine sobbing alone in the street. She’s gone through a similar journey and doesn’t remember her partner, but that doesn’t stop her from offering a friendly hand and saying they can stay together until they find the ones they’re looking for.
Even with every memory stripped away, their love remains true. Memory doesn’t rule them or define who they are, their love is a passionate, powerful thing that thrives and burns in the present even without the wood and tinder built up over years of experiences together.
The second tale, “What is Left”, offers another view, that memory is a story we can never truly share and, thus, can never know how it might change things. Following a disastrous explosion on an experimental spaceship fueled by the bio-electric energy generated by the mind of a volunteer donor reliving their memories, Isla is the lone survivor and finds herself stuck in the memories of the donor, a woman she barely knows.
As Isla realizes her situation and begins to accept she is simply a passenger through the donor’s – Kelo’s – life, she tries to keep a level head. Knowing that she can’t interact with anyone and is, essentially, little more than a ghost. That Kelo is dead and these memories are an effect of the ship’s engine and the bubble she was caught in as she was right next to the explosion. That eventually she will be rescued and brought back to the real world.
None of this stops her from falling in love.
As a front-row observer to Kelo’s life, Isla sees every quiet moment. Every heartbreak and triumph. Every first date and achievement. And over time she realizes this dead woman she maybe said 10 words to in life is a beautiful, kind, hilarious soul who she never got a chance to know. Would Kelo have liked her? Would she have liked Kelo without seeing these moments? How can she live now, knowing that she will never know this woman who she now knows better than anyone?
“What is Left” ends just before Isla is rescued, realizing that Kelo’s memories have saved her life in more than one way. The literal, obvious, sense of keeping her alive in the vacuum of space but also by showing her how much life there is to live. Kelo’s final, unwitting, gift was sharing every moment of her life and every experience that made her the woman she was right up until the moment she died. Isla, weeping as she comes to terms with this woman who lived such a full, wonderful life she will never get to share with her, is being given a chance to live her own life in the same way. A gift of memories, to let Isla create a lifetime of her own.
DGWM‘s third story is less overtly about sapphic romance and love, although it is very much present, and more on the power of collective memory, personal memory, and the fear of the unknown. A sleeping giant has rested for as long as anyone can remember and signs from its most devout worshippers point to it awakening all-too-soon to potentially disastrous results. What follows is the party at the end of the world, folks ranging from young couples facing the end in each other’s arms in the dark to the oldest women in the village sharing one last dance before the potential end. We don’t see whether the giant awakes, and that’s fine. What matters is the weight of an impending end and how people react to it. We rarely get to choose how our stories end, so what matters is whether at that end our lifetime of memories and experiences feels like a life well-lived.
Both comics could not be more different in style. She Would Feel The Same is the rawest of raw stream-of-thought comics. Black line-work on white pages, every scene just detailed enough to give the figures a sense of place in their white void of a home. Entirely grounded in Hunsinger’s skill as a cartoonist and ability to squeeze every ounce of emotion and weight from the sketchy figures and sparse set dressing of the world.
In contrast, Don’t Go Without Me is about as lavishly detailed and lively of a world as I’ve seen on a comic page. Every story in the triptych is jaw-dropping, but Valero-O’Connel’s work in the fae-filled first tale is so endlessly rich and dense it could go toe-to-toe with the visions of artists like Guillermo Del Toro and come out looking like a masterpiece. The wild differences between each work only serve to compliment each other in the end, showing sapphic love and loss in every possible lens, from the most grounded and human to the fantastical and unreal. Both creators are masters at work and execute their visions beautifully.
Honestly, when I originally took this assignment I wasn’t expecting much. Not that either comic seemed lackluster – just that, frankly, I’ve read a mountain of sapphic fiction at this point and was prepared to walk away content but not shaken to my core. Instead, I’ve been left realizing how much my identity as a lesbian has given me. I’ve been out as a trans lesbian for nearly 2 years now, and it has changed everything for me. A lifetime of memories full of roads I was too afraid to go down and shame to embrace what love truly is for me is what I have in my head, something I am no longer bound by. They are a part of me, but they do not define me.
She Would Feel the Same and Don’t Go Without Me are beautiful, personal comics with the emotional impact of a cannonball, but that isn’t what makes them perfect pieces of sapphic literature. Sapphic love, to me, is something that defies description. It is raw emotion and abiding patience. Tears staining cheeks and crinkled eyes from a smile. It is a force that I didn’t know I was missing before I had it and now will never let go of. These stories are sapphic masterpieces because they embrace every ounce of this. Every kiss, every fight, every cry of passion, and every quiet moment of peace. The memories that fuel these stories are a patchwork of sapphic love and loss in a way that few pieces of fiction can hope to touch.
She Would Feel The Same
By Emma Hunsinger
Don’t Go Without Me
By Rosemary Valero O’Connell
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