Unlike many of Mary Fleener’s comics of the past (Slutburger, Life of the Party), Billie the Bee is not a loosely autobiographical, regret-free, open-eyed trip through her adventurous youth. It is a well-researched and amply footnoted story set in a local San Diego lagoon. Fleener goes into useful and interesting details about the flora and fauna. She has taken the time to accurately and beautifully portray much of the rich environment that arises when freshwater meets the ocean, creating the wide range of solid, brackish, and swampy land that makes an estuary such a unique milieu. Because it provides a habitat for a rich diversity of life, the estuary is both a park and a nature preserve. Fleener’s depth of understanding of, and care for, the locale can be felt on every page.
Having said that, don’t think that this is a conservation treatise. It is a fun and engaging tale about compelling characters. The book departs from strict bee protocols for the sake of good storytelling. Billie, the main character, is a worker bee who is bigger than the other workers. She can fly farther. She has a creative musical streak and more imagination than her fellow bees. Billie is a mystery but has the favor of the queen of the hive, who tasks her to play a new role within the hive – ranger. She is to watch for danger, keep an eye out for an alternate location for the hive should the need arise, and get to know the other denizens in the area. In that capacity, Billie makes friends with an interesting group of creatures: the bawdy, dirty joke-telling turtles, Flo and Mo, Rayleen the rattlesnake, and Kay the coyote who eschews pack life and takes her role as a protector of the estuary very seriously.
Fleener does a remarkable job of giving each animal a personality without turning them into caricatures or stripping them of their natural qualities. Each of them has laudable moments and low points. It is refreshing to see a book where all of the primary cast is female.
Sadly for everyone in the estuary, a great deal of the trauma in their lives either involves humans directly or is the side effect of human activity. Early in the book, humans illegally dump animals into the protected reserve. Kay observes this, hoping that it will be an easy meal of rabbits. Instead, a skunk and raccoon have been released. Both prove to be dangerous to many of the inhabitants until they are finally dealt with. On another occasion, off-leash dogs belonging to a pair of joggers terrorize the turtles and nearly destroy Rayleen’s den. It is Billie’s vociferous protection of her friends that leads to the discovery of one of her secrets: she is able to sting the dogs multiple times and survive – another sign that she is more than just an oversized worker. In a third strike against the human interactions, Flo and Mo’s brothers are captured by a couple of teens. Fortunately, their father is on the Lagoon Conservatory Board and forces them to return the turtles. When the brothers go missing, Billie is sure that the skunk is to blame. While this is a trauma for everyone in the group of friends, it is also a chance for some of the creatures to demonstrate a sensible, more evidence-based approach to justice.
While people play a role, ultimately it is nature that reveals the mystery of Billie and forces her to reach her full potential and save her hive.
Like Fleener herself, Billie is a musical soul. Much to the delight of her new friends, Billie likes to compose music on the fly. These pages are rendered in Fleener’s trademark “Cubismo” style, one with the wonderful footnote, “Think Ella Fitzgerald jammin’ with Thelonious Monk.” Fleener also uses this dynamic style for other heightened moments. The first time is when an egret accidentally ingests the deadly and highly hallucinogenic datura plant. She also utilizes it whenever there is a fight scene. Cubismo is a quasi cubist style that drops the usual framing structure and allows all of the action to take place in a single page, or sometimes within a single frame. It uses heavy darks, the dense, angular chopping of space, and the repetition of images and forms to give the heightened emotions or rapid action vitality and pathos. One of the additions to this style in this book is the use of dense cross-hatching in the fur of the combatants. This style has been a hallmark of Fleener’s work for years and only gets better with time. It creates a more vibrant experience, in the same way that breaking into song and dance in a musical takes the emotion and story to another level. Plus, it’s just plain fun to look at.
For those familiar with Fleener’s body of work, they will see the extreme irony in the fact that Billie The Bee was one of the books targeted in a censorship attempt launched against the Bloomington, Illinois public library in the fall of 2021. A display of graphic novels, all only available in the adult section of the library, was deemed to be too visible to children. Some patrons demanded the display be removed. Others wanted the books stripped from the shelves. Billie was disparaged as smut. While the page where the mating habits of queen bees may be a tad startling, it is by no means titillating enough to be smut. While the protection of children from ideas and images that they may not be ready to understand is potentially a good thing, it hardly seems reasonable to deny adults the chance to read informative, exciting, and even challenging books. Billie the Bee was in good company. Other books in the targeted list included Patience and Esther (by S.W. Searle, Iron Circus), Encyclopedia of Early Earth (by Isabel Greenburg, Little Brown & Co.), Alienation (by Ines Estrada, Fantagraphics), Twisted Romance (by various, Image), Your Black Friend (by Ben Passmore, Silver Sprocket), Meadowlark (by Greg Ruth and Ethan Hawke, Grand Central Publishing), and Trixie and Katya’s Guide to Modern Womanhood (by Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova, Plume).
While Billie the Bee may not include some of the more provocative elements of the other books, it belongs with these titles as an example of the power of graphic storytelling in the hands of a master storyteller.