Review: Dear Amanda by Cathy G. Johnson

One of the great joys of SPX for me this year (despite not getting to be there) was to see great cartoonists be recognized through the Ignatz Awards. Cathy G. Johnson is the winner of this year’s Promising New Talent Ignatz award on a slate of really great cartoonists. Dear Amanda was a debut comic for the show.

Dear Amanda is a 48 page comic on grey paper printed in black risograph. Dear Amanda is a lesbian romance comic that features coworkers Belén and Ginette. Belén is studying Dutch and wants to move to Amsterdam and write. She’s using Ginette as the subject of her writing, but when Ginette discovers she is Belén’s “muse,” things change drastically.

Johnson’s cartooning is very organic with strong blacks and grays. Like some of the other comics I’ve reviewed over the past 3-6 months, Johnson is working in Dear Amanda with graphite, which gives the subject matter an immediacy and a passion. There are some absolutely stunning pages in this book – I’ve picked one of my favorites, but the last pages as well are beautiful to look at.

Through Dear Amanda, Johnson critiques the way that we look at people, use other people; sometimes without meaning harm, and sometimes ignoring the harm we cause. 

Belén’s writing exercises, the Dear Amanda letters, are a particularly interesting feature of the comic. Part of me feels that these are really Belén’s love letters to herself, exulting in the images and sounds of her relationship with Ginette, but not sharing in them. She catalogs and makes commentary. There’s a voyeurism in Belén’s writing that is strange and self-indulgent.

The letters are also a secret from Ginette. Dear Amanda reminded me that secrets are transformative in their very nature. We mold ourselves around these things, sometimes changing ourselves and our goals to protect them, and in doing so we put our needs or the service of that secret ahead of our relationships. 

Relationships are also transformative – and not always in a positive way. Yes, there is the joy of romance and sexuality, but ultimately, Belén is exploiting Ginette to write and be creative. There’s a darkness to Dear Amanda that spills out in the final act that hinges on this exploitation.

Ginette’s reaction to Belén’s writing is visceral one, and it strikes me that the words that Belén has put to page strip Ginette of her agency. That the last action of Dear Amanda is Ginette taking that agency back is encouraging.

Relationships are a place where we learn and grow – and if relationships are to last, we must learn and grow together. Recommended.

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Cathy G. Johnson is a cartoonist, illustrator, and educator. You can find more of her work at her website. Cathy’s tumblr is at cathyboy and you can find her on twitter at @cathyisgroovy.

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