Toronto is a hotbed of indie comics and up-and-coming comics artists, and the Toronto Comics Anthology series had been presenting scads of them in interesting, often surprising themed anthologies since 2014. The latest offering, Wayward Sisters, promises a collection of stories about “lady and non-binary monsters,” and generally speaking, it does what it says on the tin.
In some ways the current situation of Anglophone comics seems comparable to that of rock music: after a long “twilight of the gods,” the most interesting material is being produced by women, people of color, and queer people. Wayward Sisters is stocked with creators belonging to all three groups, and the voluminous biographies of each contributor, presented at the beginning of each section so that there’s no chance of forgetting who created what, attest to their many intersectional identities. It’s the resulting richness of perspective that powers the anthology, though as with any collection bringing together so many newcomers, some of the stories stick their landings better than others.
Some of the monsters are metaphorical, as in “Bad Hair Day” by writer Cassandra Khaw (who’s been garnering notice lately for her series of Tor.com novellas) and artist C. Ann Gordon, which explores the debilitating effects of depression. Others are charmingly literal, like Katie Shanahan’s “Zira and the Little Fire,” whose wandering monster protagonist Zira just wants to make friends, but finds his overtures stymied by the automatic horror of the villagers he meets. Though the setup seems familiar, the twist presented by the little fire, along with the appropriately cute art style, elevate it to a funny and clever tale. Mandy James’s “The Purrrfect Solution,” about a lonely witch who also tries to befriend scared locals with mixed results, has a similar winning combination of cute art and a clever twist on an old story. I also quite enjoyed “Date Night,” by Allison Bannister, Ronnie Ritchie, and Meghan Carter with lettering by Nikki Powers (the anthology’s MVP, as she letters multiple comics in it), in which a dude bails on his date with a female T-rex who’s stepped out to save the city—but the appreciative waitress steps in to invite her out for dessert.
More than a few of these comics have a strong Asian influence. Reflections of the Asian immigrant experience in Canada, such as the collection’s opener, “Love and Fury” by Aimee Lim and Sam Beck, are a prominent thread through the anthology. Other comics are takeoffs on history and folklore in East Asian countries, as in Janice Liu’s “The Wife’s Shadow,” in which a young wife in medieval China finds an unusual way to escape her in-laws’ affectionate bonds. My favorite of these was “Ugly Cinderwench and the Very Angry Ghost” by Xavière Daumarie, in which a very angry, irreverent tanuki hell girl demon is summoned by a medieval Japanese aristocrat, who gets a hell of a lot more than he bargained for when he commands her to exorcise a local ghost. “Either/Or,” by Lea Shepherd and Laura Neubert, with lettering by Nikki Powers, offers an unexpected take on the tale of a white woman adopting children of color, in this case two Filipina girls: through monstrousness, the family finds its own equilibrium across racial lines.
The anthology contains a whopping twenty-five stories in two hundred-odd pages, with the unfortunate result that some of the comics feel just a bit too short: many of them are only six pages long, which often is only enough time to set out an intriguing concept. “The Way Home,” by Lorean Torres Loaiza and Sabaa Bismil with lettering by Nikki Powers, stands out as one example of this tendency: its story about a woman who powers a lighthouse is interesting, but there isn’t quite enough there for readers to fully grasp the intended meaning in the pages allotted. Another two pages would have been welcome. The same goes for the wordless “Solid Shadows” by Rachel Simon and K. Guillory, which does use digital effects to interesting ends in its lush art.
On the other hand, some of the comics manage to pack quite a lot of information into their short page counts. “Tinseltown” by Allison O’Toole and Emmanuelle Chateauneuf uses a three-color scheme to tell its Old Hollywood story of revenge, thereby keeping its plot-heavy story manageable. Gillian Blekkenhorst’s “Inheritance” tells an extremely dense story about a couple moving into a possibly haunted house, but its unusual paneling and ghostly lettering combined make it somewhat hard to follow. “Low Tide” by M. Blankier and Helen Robinson, on the other hand, manages a perfectly weighted combination of somewhat familiar story (a governess departs London for the countryside under the cloud of scandal, and her new charge’s father is by turns demanding and fascinating) with a painterly art style that is exactly suited to the setting.
The variety of art styles in the comics is interesting, but as a preponderance of the art is on the more conventional end of the gamut of comics art, the more experimental offerings stand out. I’m not sure whether Zavka’s “The Insect” actually works, but it’s extremely visually striking, and it’s also one of the few comics that uses full-page spreads to their full potential. The faux-medieval art style of “Leon’s Return” by Zoe Maeve, on the other hand, is somehow a perfect counterpoint to the (pseudo?) contemporary story, complete with smartphones, of a lion returning home from the city for a visit. It’s a juxtaposition that shouldn’t work but definitely does.
In the anthology’s introduction, Faith Erin Hicks of The Nameless City (2016) and Avatar: The Last Airbender (forthcoming) fame writes that “These are the fairy tales I wish I had as a kid, the ones that say it’s okay if you struggle, it’s okay if you’re weird, it’s okay if you’re a little monstrous. We all are, after all.” Hicks certainly isn’t wrong about that, but by the end of the last story, Cassandra Grullon’s “Moonless Sea,” I found myself thinking about the fact that not all monsters are created equal, quite literally. Particularly for women, people of color, and queer people, stories about monsters are just as likely to be stories about external forces making us monstrous, or so determinedly portraying us as monsters that we have no choice but to become monsters, as they are to be about actual monsters—if the phrase actually has any meaning. (Or, in the words of the late, great Joanna Russ, “We wuz pushed.”) Wayward Sisters mostly stays on the lighter-hearted side of that line, which is part of what gives it such charm. The world is dark and difficult enough; these comics tell stories in which the monsters come out right and the truly monstrous, the evildoers who fear and oppress them, get what they deserve. And those, ultimately, are the kinds of fairy tales we can always stand to hear.