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Three amigas

Slutburger, Meat Cake, and Tomato lead the pack

by Lisa Susser

Call it a trend, if you like, but that's only dismissive of the maelstrom of creativity that women are bringing to independent comics. Artists and writers who happen to be women are now producing some of the most exciting books in this traditionally male-dominated medium. Among the best titles are the Victorian fest Meat Cake (Fantagraphics), the cubist/futurist Slutburger (Drawn & Quarterly), and the very Hernandez Brothers-inspired Tomato (Starhead). These titles offer more than just food for thought.

Both Slutburger and Tomato are autobiographical, and Meat Cake is a fanciful gothic romp with the overactive imagination of its creator, Dame Darcy. Meat Cake is sinister, with dark humor toasting Darcy's supernatural stories. Darcy's overfilled, filigreed frames are adorned by the likes of Strega Pez, whose slit throat emits giant pez on which her thoughts are written. Her mother was a witch, of course; that's how these things happen in comics. Then there are Hindrance and Perfidia and Effluvia, Meat Cake's fine-tuned mischief makers.

Dame Darcy herself is a self-proclaimed neo-Luddite: her distaste for the modern creeps into her stories and her book's letters section. But that doesn't keep one of her characters from driving a car -- even though she's a mermaid, just part of a population that includes fillies, selfish shellfish, two-headed freaks, and velocipedes. Sometimes Darcy's crowded, overstuffed pen-and-ink drawing tests the patience, but Meat Cake invariably rewards with its oddities.

Mary Fleener's Slutburger is more accessible -- a flip trip through her life in bold black and white. Here's a comic that's simultaneously topical and artsy. Fleener's autobiographical stories about her nymphomaniac roommate, "Torpedo Tits," and the sad truths learned while losing friends to the AIDS epidemic are told with equal aplomb. The cubism she uses for visual impact adds depth and dizziness to the frames. At its best, Fleener's geometric realization of modern life reverberates off the page, putting visual zing in the more startling moments of her stories.

In issue five, the latest and last issue of Slutburger with its current publisher, a cover-band rendition of the song "Tequila" (Fleener's main character is a female bass player) induces mayhem in a women's bar. The results spill across the pages in angular disarray, inducing a feel for the sloppy, drunken insanity at play in the room. Her stories also use women's body image accurately, and they portray human experiences like the joys of surrendering to sexuality. Fleener's acerbic voice and sharply honed visuals make Slutburger one of the better reads around.

Ellen Forney's Tomato is a new kid on the shelves, but this upstart is definitely going places. The first issue's cover has an attractive lass with a ketchup bottle in her hand; over the next four pages, she metamorphoses into bondage attire and the bottle becomes a dildo. That type of humor flavors the comic, as it makes light of growing up with partying parents, girlfriends, and looking for love in all the wrong places. Forney's drawn piece on interviewing Camille Paglia -- by fax -- captures our frenzied electronic pace. The fact that Paglia is looking for a date clinches the tale's hilarity.

To illustrate her wry take on being alive in the techno-hyped '90s, Forney uses varying line thicknesses in her drawings, conveying her characters' kinetic energy. It also helps to distinguish these stories from the '70s -- which have their own, more dense style -- and the stories of her characters Birdie and Spike, whose episodes have a more predominately white background. Drawing some of the same blood as the feisty Maggie and Hopey of Love and Rockets fame, Birdie and Spike banter about men, love matters, and nudie pictures. They're a knavish pair who promise to brew more good-natured trouble in the future.

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