Queer people don’t usually get to see themselves live happily ever after in most media. We get the love stories that end in tragedy. This is largely because non-queer people are making most of the media that represents us–which means we’re not really represented in it at all. So it’s refreshing to see a book like Bingo Love, in which Tee Franklin attempts to give us what most media representations of queer people refuse: a happy ending. Franklin has set out on a laudable mission, to show young queer folks that their love stories don’t have to end in death and loneliness and secrecy, but that there are queer people out there who live the love stories everyone wants to have. But despite her admirable intentions and Jen St-Onge’s adorable art, the graphic novel stumbles due to poor pacing, shoddy characterizations, and a confusing lack of focus.
The story follows Hazel and Mari, two girls who meet as teenagers in 1963 while attending a bingo night at their church with their grandmothers. They’re instantly inseparable, the kinds of best friends that can finish each other’s sentences. Hazel harbors what she thinks are unrequited feelings for Mari. After four years, she finally learns they’re reciprocated, but their families force them apart by demanding they marry men. Sixty years and lots of children and grandchildren later, they run into each other by accident, at a bingo hall, and immediately reconnect, with those feelings from their childhood love just as strong. From there, they must deal with the consequences of their relationship, what it means for their families, and how they’re going to spend the rest of their lives.
To be clear, Jen St-Onge does an admirable job with the art on this comic. All of the book’s personality comes from St-Onge’s character designs and cartoonish emotions, since otherwise the characters spend most of the book just talking. Joy San’s colors equally serve the mood of the book, with bright, primary colors characteristic of these kinds of queer comics, which are often directed at young women.
But even the cutest illustrations can’t save a book that has so many issues with storytelling. Tee Franklin’s writing is clumsy and feels rushed. The comic is after all trying to cram in a lifetime of information about Hazel and Mari. Franklin deals with this by giving us most of the important information in montage. The girls become friends over the course of four years, in the span of a one-page montage. Hazel lives a 50-year marriage with a man she’s not in love with, carrying his children and being a housewife, in the matter of a two-page spread. Even when Hazel and Mari reconnect, we see the blossoming of their new relationship with narration from Hazel but little interaction between them.
It’s the frustrating part of reading a story that spans so many years. Franklin took a cue from the storytelling at the beginning of Up, in which Carl and Ellie live the course of their love story in a little less than five minutes. But what she doesn’t seem to realize is that that’s the point of that device. It’s all about how fast a life can fly by, how quickly you can run out of time for the plans you’ve made. And it gives us a lifetime with the couple, time to get to know them both as children and as adults, the ways they change, the new things they want for their lives, the things they lose and the heartbreaks they share together–and it does this almost completely without dialogue, which makes it even more powerful.
In this case, Hazel and Mari aren’t the same girls they were when they met as children–and we see no reason whatsoever that they would love each other the same way as grandmothers, with their own separate lives and children. Hazel is a housewife who loves designing clothes, Mari is a successful lawyer. Both have children and grandchildren. They’re both in unhappy marriages, which are unhappy for different reasons. All we know about them as a couple is that they loved each other, once, as teenagers. Because they don’t spend any time together on the page, getting to know each other as they are now, after decades apart, their love story falls flat. Somehow, we’re supposed to understand that these women still carry so much love for each other that they’re both willing to immediately divorce their husbands to be together, even though we haven’t actually seen any of that love demonstrated.
There are similar issues with characterizations with Hazel’s husband James, who goes from being humiliated and angry at this new development in his wife’s life, to suddenly understanding because he has a secret of his own about a relationship in his past. We don’t actually get to hear what this secret is, because we have to buy a separate digital publication, Bingo Love: Secrets, in order to find out. (This digital release is advertised on the page via an asterisk and an editor’s note, like a Spider-Man comic.) We’re supposed to just take the narrator’s word for it that this revelation is so important that James and Hazel reconcile, coming to terms with their lack of love for each other and divorcing amicably.
The characters all speak as if they were born after the year 1990 and spend a lot of time on the internet. It’s difficult to imagine a grandmother describing herself as pansexual–a descriptor that’s only come into widespread usage in the last decade, and though it’s refreshing to not have this woman who married a man say, “I’ve been a lesbian all along!”, the use of such a modern label feels disingenuous. She similarly deals with her conflicted emotions by spending time with her grandchildren–and refers to this time as “self-care.” It feels odd to reference a mental health coping mechanism in such a way; though it’s probably not a phrase confined to Twitter, it doesn’t seem like the way a woman from another generation might define the desire to take care of herself emotionally.
Franklin is trying to create a queer love story that doesn’t exist as often as it should–one featuring lovers who are queer women of color who came of age in a time when being openly queer was difficult and dangerous and which doesn’t end in tragedy or heartbreak. We don’t usually see queer happily ever afters represented on screen or in literature, despite the fact that many queer couples do live happy lives together, and it can be difficult to find the courage to be openly queer in a world that thinks your happiness is impossible. It’s an admirable goal, to want to create a happy love story for people who so rarely get happy endings in the stories told about them.
Unfortunately, the love story of Hazel and Mari gets diluted by the confusingly rushed storytelling, which didn’t allow the readers enough time to get to know the characters. In a work as long as this graphic novel, it was disappointing for these characters to reach the happy ending that all queer people deserve and, as a reader, to not understand how they got there.
The Bingo Love OGN comes out this Valentine’s Day through Image Comics, more information can be found here.
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