The Subversive Adorability of Lulu Eightball
Unlike many mainstream comic strips that depict childhood as pure and full of happiness – such as the nauseatingly idyllic Family Circus or the benignly mischievous Dennis the Menace – Lulu Eightball is unafraid to acknowledge the dark side of growing up.
If you've never heard of Lulu Eightball, you're not alone, but you're missing out. Lulu Eightball is a one-panel comic, drawn by Emily Flake, often featuring four scenarios within the single panel, which appears in six alt-weeklies and is available online through the Baltimore City Paper. (A book of Lulu Eightball cartoons was also released in 2005.) Flake's style is cute and unpolished, and its content is often both absurd and obscene. It's also extremely funny.
Flake's uses comical word forms and punctuation to accentuate her humor style. Letter blocks or slang terms such as "taco" or "meat wallet" to refer to a woman's anatomy are shocking and hilarious at the same time. Flake also liberally peppers her strips with apostrophes and humorous dialect such as "turlit" for "toilet". Lulu herself is depicted as a word nerd; an affinity for language is one of the things fans of Flake's work likely have in common.
But what makes Lulu Eightball a rarity is its combination of a clearly feminine sensibility with nontraditional subject matter, characters, style, and of course, language. The main character is the titular Lulu, though she does not appear in every strip. One of the first things that differentiate Lulu Eightball from traditional comics is that it's not technically about Lulu -- there is no plot, no central conflict or conceit, no problem to be resolved. In several strips it is suggested that Lulu is an illustrator, but the strip is not about her career, nor is about how her relationships will ultimately turn out. The strip is about nothing in particular, which is an essential part of its charm, and helps keep its storyline, or lack of storyline, from becoming stale.
Because no plot needs to be advanced, Flake can concentrate simply on humorous situations -- some traditional (the first day on the job, where a nervous-looking Lulu finds herself "trying desperately not to shit own pants in front of new boss 'cause of too much coffee and nerves" or the challenges of modern relationships, such as Lulu advising a friend over the phone, "Yeah, it's totally ok to break up with someone over I.M.") and some absurd (a trio of UPS drivers are confronted by three girls in Brownie uniforms armed with chains, a bow and arrow, and such taunts as, "I'm 'bout to earn my patch in ass-kickin', pally" and "Hey, I saw your lady with a Fed-Ex man").
Implausible situations and nontraditional depictions of childhood innocence and femininity are Flake staples. Lulu is portrayed as pudgy and unattractive -- Bret McCabe described Lulu as "the Pillsbury Doughboy's indie-rock girlfriend" -- but despite some occasional self-deprecation, Lulu does not seem all that concerned about her appearance. Unlike a mainstream comic character like Cathy, who is traumatized by such perplexing dilemmas as buying a new bathing suit, Lulu's looks are not a primary concern for the character or readers. A recent strip, "Checking in on the New Year's Resolutions", Lulu is shown, sans pants, in a chair in front of the TV, saying, "Whatever, man, self-improvement's for weenies." The caption reads, "Opted out".
Though Lulu isn't so concerned about her appearance, her less-than-stunning looks are often referenced and played up for comic effect. Flake's preoccupation with Lulu's weight and appearance – and the assumption that drawing a girl character as chubby is somehow more humorous – are indications of society's obsession with the female body. Though Lulu rejects society's imperative to be attractive, a self-consciousness is clearly present in the comic. However, Flake often refreshingly manages to turn this common theme upside down. Even when dealing with traditional subjects like fears of aging, Flake always tosses in an element of the absurd or the macabre; one cartoon addresses female aging by depicting not Botox treatments or plastic surgery, but a woman bathing in virgins' blood to stay young.
Though Lulu does not strive to be an ideal of beauty, she hasn't abandoned all traditional feminine traits. One of her primary characteristics is her love for all things cute: puppies, bunnies, stuffed animals, VW Bugs. This is balanced, however, with a love for Maker's Mark and cigarettes. In a cartoon where Lulu has to choose which personal item to bring on an airplane, a teddy bear or a bottle of booze, Lulu's darker side wins out: "Ok, but -- but can I have him back when I finish the whiskey?" The juxtaposition of cuteness and vice runs throughout the strip and is one of the most appealing things about the comic. In fact, the cover of the Lulu Eightball book depicts the character smoking and walking hand-in-hand along the beach with an adorable monkey, who happens to be carrying a flask.
Lulu's love of cuteness does not extend to a maternal instinct, however. The few cartoons that feature children always depict Lulu's (and possibly Flake's) feelings of ambivalence toward children and motherhood. One cartoon, "Poor Housekeeping" depicts a woman (not Lulu) who finds a naked baby in an apartment sitting on the floor alone. The caption reads, "Forgetting to pick up baby litter." Another strip shows Lulu deliberately dropping an egg, with the caption "Took the 'F' in Home Ec."
In keeping with Lulu's lack of maternal instinct, a prominent theme of Lulu Eightball is the loss of childhood innocence -- or perhaps that one's childhood was never all that innocent to begin with. In a Baltimore CityPaper interview, Flake explained, "A lot of childhood is sort of a scam…. I think a lot of kids are very stressed out. Childhood to me is a very unhappy weird time where you haven't figured out anything." In Flake's strips, childhood is sometimes treated with nostalgia, but more often relics of childhood are ironically juxtaposed with adult themes. One memorable strip, "Adults Shouldn't Be Allowed Toys" depicts both a "Lego people orgy" and Barbie and Ken – with heads switched and gender roles reversed – having sex. A man is shown drawing "Fuck you" on an Etch-a-Sketch, while Lulu plays with blocks and declares to a friend, "Check it out, man -- letter blocks're humpin'." The fact that Lulu plays with blocks -- and stuffed animals -- suggests a longing for childhood, but Lulu Eightball's perverse and very adult sensibility shows that innocence can never truly be regained. Unlike many mainstream comic strips that depict childhood as pure and full of happiness – such as the nauseatingly idyllic Family Circus or the benignly mischievous Dennis the Menace – Lulu Eightball is unafraid to acknowledge the dark side of growing up.
Sexuality -- and not just that of letter blocks and Lego people -- is another recurrent theme in Lulu Eightball. Predictably, the sex lives of Flake's characters are generally presented as anything but healthy. Whether it's the perverted shopping-mall Santa or the couple that has the awkward one-night stand, none of the characters in Lulu Eightball are likely to enjoy a happy, stable relationship. Lulu's attempts to express her own sexuality are also doomed: In a strip called "Reasons I Cannot Be a Go-Go Dancer", a topless Lulu asks a fellow dancer, "Why don't they like me?" The skinny dancer responds, "Cause you fat and you can't dance. That's why." In another cartoon called "Specialty Underthings", a character, presumably Lulu, is shown wearing Magical Grandma Underpants. Lulu says, "Yeah, I don't have to change 'em, I just keep turning 'em inside out." Lulu makes no attempt at either sexuality or even basic hygiene.
This juxtaposition of traditional feminine traits with nontraditional attributes makes Lulu not only humorous but relevant. Too often female characters are one-dimensional, either smart or pretty, successful or kind, attractive or virtuous. Lulu is a complex character, one who is smart but not obviously successful, cute but not in the standard, socially acceptable way, at times loving and tender without being maternal or traditionally feminine. However, Lulu's embodiment of subversive traits also conveys the ambivalent reality of this complex femininity.
If there is one way Lulu is never depicted , it's truly happy. She deals constantly with rejection and walks a thin line, as most of us do, between self-acceptance and self-loathing. The comic's relatability is one of its most appealing aspects; Flake's realistic, often sad portrayal of Lulu reflects society's uneasy relationship with outsiders of any gender.
Any fan of deadpan humor, ironic wit, and pop-culture references will find something to love in this comic. Overall, Flake's artistic sensibility can possibly best be seen as a study in contradictions. In contrast to the cute drawing style and often adorable subject matter, she also discusses taboo subjects such as rape, alcoholism, masturbation, and violence, shown in such a way as to make them, somehow, humorous – or at least not so dark. The feel of the comic is consistently dark and deadpan, yes, but the subjects are lightened considerably by Flake's whimsy. It is the combination of lighthearted fantasy and dark reality that make this comic so disarming, so compelling, and ultimately so humorous. Flake has described her artistic style this way: "Somebody wrote in once saying more or less that he hated my cartoons because everything was kind of sad, that it wasn't a real go-getter's cartoon. And the only thing I could think was, How would it be funny if it was?".