Red as Blue, by filmmaker and poet Ji Strangeway with art by Juan Fleites, is a story of June Lusparian, an outcast in high school in a 1980’s Colorado town. With a non-Anglo background and two moms, neither of whom seem to be particularly supportive, June is unmoored, adrift and lost. Co-captain of the cheerleading squad, Beverly, falls for June. Despite sabotage and backstabbing from her co-captain and “good Christian” Kimberly, Beverley is able to awaken and support June’s talents in music and songwriting. But all is not well in Paradise. As the books reminds us, “And forgiveness never falls from heaven of its own accord.”
June’s been left to fend for herself for so long, she’s almost feral when we first meet her. She’s 15 going on infant, as she watches the other students in the school only half understanding what the things they are doing even mean. She’s got no particular place or group in the school and everyone, it seems, wants to hurt her, encouraging her to disappear. Until Beverly.
The story is presented as a screenplay, rather than a narrative. Chapters are punctuated with illustrated pages of chapter highlights, like…what am I thinking of….you know, arty knockoffs of those 60s romance comics covers with broken-up narratives. The choppiness of the format fits neatly with June’s own broken life.
I had a lot of feelings as I read Red as Blue, not all of them pleasant. To be brutally honest, I had a hard time liking June….and the problem was entirely with me, not with her. I wore my own intellectual elitism throughout my school years like armor. I knew that if anyone was attempting to harass me, the problem was with them. It bothered me on so many levels that June just assumed that she was the problem. Additionally, June is neither well-educated nor particularly clever on an instinctual level. Her survival skills are minimal. And I found I despised her for it. Which put me in the shoes not of the protagonist nor her love interest…but of her tormentors. So wow, that’s a thing I hadn’t ever felt before. It was not a good moment for me.
In those moments of hating just how toxic Kimberly is and hating June for not fighting back against Kimberly, and not understanding her own betrayal of Beverly, and just sort of letting life be shitty and not understanding herself at all, I found the illustrated pages to be a respite. Like, seriously I needed a respite from being a shitty person. Gawd.
But what starts rough and ugly, somewhere about the thirtieth horrible thing that happens to June suddenly, almost imperceptibly, gets less ugly. Even as the crises are building towards an explosion, and Paradise High cruises towards a tragedy, suddenly you realize that June is more eloquent than she’s previously been, that her understanding is less confused. Like she had been living in a wilderness and had been rescued.
By the end of the book, when June is able to express herself with profound beauty, your cannot help but realize that Beverly was the Fairy Godmother and the Prince. And yet, as I read the final pages, I’m still the Evil Stepmother, because I fuckin’ abandoned June. Like her mothers. I just let her ride her waves of self-loathing, because she wasn’t fighting back. But she was and it was Beverly who saw it for what it was, not this reader.
Story – 9
Characters – 8
Art – 7
Lesbian – 9
Overall – 9
Red as Blue 1, Erica 0. I concede. Book wins.
I have to very seriously thank Dany for introducing me to Ji and thank Ji for the advance copy. It slayed me and I think I am about half angry and half happy about it, but am not sure. I want people to read it and be put through the same meat grinder and see what comes out the other side.
Red as Blue will be out in 2018. Sign up here to be notified when it’s released.