All the Clichés Go Limp: Keith Silva Reviews Jason Little’s THE VAGINA

As a wise Lebowski once said, “The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. ‘Vagina.’”

Cartoonist Jason Little, it appears, suffers no such discomfort. The same can’t be said for his latest offering, The Vagina, which begins bawdy and brave, but loses its verve as Little relies on the convenience of cliché to resolve the farcical complications that make it such squirmy fun to start. 

Originally published in French in 2019 by La Boîte à Bulles, Jason Little’s The Vagina debuted in English as a serialized weekly webcomic on Little’s website in September 2020. As of this writing, it’s about three-quarters complete (the forthcoming completed collection was provided for this review). The story imagines two women, Polly and Molly, whose vaginas become interdimensional portals after digesting a hot dog and a burrito, respectively—the science is ludicrous. Instead of weird worlds or a conveyance to an Einstein-ian alternate reality, what goes in one vagina, comes out the other, and hilarity ensues. Farce via vagina.

Polly performs as Polly Amorous, a sex-positive, body-positive bleach blonde in a New York City burlesque show. She appears to have been born fully formed from a mind-meld of Divine and the Pink Bits Instagram feed. When she’s not performing, she masturbates, dances to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Fresh,” fucks, and all-around lives her best life. Molly lives on the opposite coast, in San Francisco, and runs a coffee shop. She mirrors Polly’s carefree lifestyle in monogamous bliss with her wife, Lupe, who, after ten years of marriage, wants to start a family. Molly, who was adopted (ditto Polly, ahem), and raised by not so open-minded parents when it came to her sexual identity, runs a bit cool on the whole “let’s-raise-a-kid-thing.” Molly and Polly’s parallel lives — the east coast sex pot and the left coast lesbian — give The Vagina its convenient inconveniences. Credit Little for giving these characters a sit-com lightness (the uninhibited performer and the buttoned-up spouse) that’s endearing even if it hints at a lack of imagination that will prove tiresome as the story runs its course.   

Once you get past the gaudy naughtiness of The Vagina and its one-note premise, the narrative turns out to be a soapy trope dressed up as a family drama with all the multi-racial, sexually-inclusive hipness baked in that one expects from a story about two women bridged by their vaginas. The ending even casts Little as less provocateur and more sentimental family man of the straight world persuasion. The masturbatory thrills of the opening chapters evolve into a maturity and acceptance of domesticity best described as “pretty cool” racially (and sexually).

Consummate (yes, as both as an adjective AND a verb) applies to Little’s work as a cartoonist. Polly and Molly are both large women and Little imbues each character with confidence and pride in their bodies. And why wouldn’t he? Sure, Polly is the more comfortable of the two in how uninhibited she is (she does perform in a burlesque show, after all) and Little’s line seems to have a little je ne sais quoi (an extra dash of spice) as his brush dips down into her curves and her full-bodied swells and bulges. Molly (as she admits) is the less glamorous of the two and yes, less carefree, but she does not lack conviction and, neither does Little when drawing her as less groomed and glossy but no less confident. All the esprit de Vagina comes from Little’s cartooning, from panel to panel to the look (lewk?) and design of the characters it’s all a frolic, which is why it’s a disappointment that that beauty is too often superficial. Enter men.  

The male members in The Vagina are central albeit secondary players. And yes, writing that sentence feels both accurate and silly and, much like The Vagina, at times, unashamedly enjoyable. Little’s not shy drawing dicks, rods, or johnsons and everyone gets to let it all hang out. The Vagina offers up two swinging Richards: the flamboyant Valentino who acts as MC at Polly’s performances, and the fella she fancies, Stephen, a black British ex-pat music journo who’d rather be working on his novel [eye roll]. And although Stephen, well, more like Stephen’s penis, provides The Vagina with most of its rising action, he’s little more than a means to an end. Little makes Stephen slightly more than a stock player but doesn’t stray too far from familiar tropes. 

After Stephen and Polly’s first fuck — which is far too bonkers to give away — Polly says, “I’ve never … been with a man like you before.” Stephen barely gives her a beat to explain herself before accusing her of being like every other white woman he’s encountered. Each, he says, has been a “transaction based on my blackness.” Whether he’s referring to the white woman he’s fucked as well as the un-fucked one’s is a bit vague, though. One minute Polly and Stephen are locked in throes of passion and in the next breath, Stephen accuses Polly of being racist? In the parlance of our times, that escalated quickly.  Farce depends on physical humor, nonsense, and exaggeration. Polly and Stephen’s sex scene (and how it connects to Molly and Lupe) pays that bill in full; however, Little’s choice to end this scene using a racial justice issue as a plot point, though, is at best, poor, and at worst, insensitive. The Vagina goes out of its way to be inclusive and positive which makes Little’s overreaching here appear flaccid. Yes, Stephen has to “go away” in order to adhere to the rules of the farce, so, of course he can reunite with Polly in the end. But sending him off stage having accused his lover of transactional racism, that’s Little’s play?  

Stephen is a stereotype of the hip, cool, and angry black man, but he pales in comparison to the grab bag of clichés that is Valentino. As The Vagina’s resident gay best friend, Valentino acts as the narrative’s factotum, audience surrogate, and, when Little needs him to be, a wise and moralizing voice. It’s a heavy lift for the out and proud, leopard-print G-string wearing Valentino, who, sadly, unlike Stephen, doesn’t get any backstory or life beyond when he’s in Polly’s presence. One can only hold out hope that (what should be) the sequel, Vagina II: the Revenge, Valentino’s Valentine’s Day, gives this character his due. 

The best example of Little’s need for Valentino to speak his truth as a Greek chorus of one occurs after a no-spark hook-up Polly has with an Asian man who is also a fan of her work. Turns out for all her brassy, va-va-voom personality, Polly’s hung up when it comes to race, specifically the supposed “hung-ness” (Hungus?) of different races. This comes out later (only to get cut short) in her “encounter” with Stephen. Polly admits to Valentino that although she predominantly goes with Asian men, she’s always wanted to have a black boyfriend, which she feels weird about since her adopted father is black. After Valentino explains to Polly, “wanting a boyfriend who is the same race as your father, does not mean you want to fuck your father, necessarily.” With her Electra complex bested; Polly gets to the meat of the matter in regard to why she really dates Asian men, “All appearances to the contrary, I am not a size queen.” Wise Valentino quickly sees all, “Oh! So you’re not into big cocks.” This allows him (and Little) to call out Polly, who’s less of an out-and-out bigot and closer to someone with a passionate interest in urban legends. Valentino says, “You’re not being fair, Polly, to yourself or to the male sex. There really isn’t a link between race and penis size.” For what it’s worth, Valentino delivers this lesson au naturel. Curiously, he chooses not to bring up the moral dilemma of Polly dating, sorry, fucking a fan and a sycophantic one at that. Oh well, that’s showbiz! If one is to be called on one’s racist-adjacent bullshit, it’s best if that comes from a comforting and caring soul who favors a bowler hat and cane combo like Valentino.

The understanding gay best friend, the easily resolved and consequence-free non-racism racism, and the dick measuring thing — that’s a lot of bromides to load up like cordwood on your way to the kumbaya-cum-campfire sing-along and weenie roast at camp cliché. All are welcome, of course. Yet that’s only one example. Little does this proverbial piling on again and again to the point of exhaustion. It’s as if it’s all a run-on dad joke of overused signs, signifiers, and signified. Clichés are clichés for a reason. Got it. Full stop. And yet in a story that imagines an interdimensional vaginal canal, sorry two (!) interconnected interdimensional vaginal canals initiated by street foods, but relies on hacky truisms to carry most of its weight deserves further interrogation — maybe The Vagina isn’t all goofy fun, empowerment, and dicks. It’s one thing to allow for lazy writing that relies on catchphrases from cult movies, it’s another to let an otherwise funny, farcical, and thought-provoking comic to … what? … abide, perhaps, in a similar fashion.

Self-deprecation (and self-flagellation) aside, the first blush of excitement brought on by The Vagina quickly plateaus as Little reaches again and again for convenience over something more creative or perhaps less expected. This is only a disappointment due to the audacity of Little’s you’ve-never-seen-this-before idea. Add Polly and Molly’s other connection, which is what gives this story it’s heart, and all the clichés go limp, which is the last thing The Vagina needs.

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