'The Animators': A touching portrait of female artists
April 16, 2017 12:00 AM
Kayla Rae Whitaker
By Courtney Linder / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Holed up in the “Armpit of Bushwick,” animation tag team Sharon Kisses and Mel Vaught spent 10 years craned over drafting tables, passing expired packages of Peeps back and forth and smoking too many cigarettes while slaving over “Nashville Combat,” their first full-length feature.
By Kayla Rae Whitaker Random House ($27).
In her breakout novel about two female animators, Kayla Rae Whitaker depicts the drudgery of small-town life tied to the often heartbreaking reality that belonging is sometimes more about a state of mind than a location. Through a plot driven by “starving artist” types, Ms. Whitaker flays open the archetype and challenges it through Southern characters who share a nearly Sherlock-Watson brand of symbiosis.
Sharon Kisses, the reserved first-person narrator from Maysville, Ky., met animation partner and best friend Mel Vaught while studying at a prestigious art school on a “Poor Appalachian Kid” scholarship. Mel, an outspoken, lesbian punk with short, platinum hair and a biting tongue, befriends Sharon after mutually geeking out over the craftsmanship of animations such as 1974’s adult cartoon “Dirty Duck.”
“Nashville Combat,” the pair’s brainchild, is the byproduct of Mel’s forlorn youth in central Florida swampland. It chronicles Mel’s childhood while living alongside an unfit, drug-addicted mother who was incarcerated when she was 13. While the story juggles dark themes, it is told with a brilliant humor — not unlike Ms. Whitaker’s book.
The film is best summarized by a fictional NPR host Glynnis Havermeyer, who interviews a nervous Sharon and an extremely inebriated Mel, still struggling with the painful reality of her childhood on screen. “One wonders, upon watching, if ‘Nashville Combat’ is the product of shared drama, in a sense,” Havermeyer said.
Sharon, who had cloistered most of her life from the public and from her partner up to this point, would soon rediscover her own demons. At Mel’s insistence, the two would go on to animate her horrific memories in their second film.
In the rare moments where “The Animators” loses steam — sometimes the comic book descriptions are self-indulgent for those who care about the characters over their craft — Ms. Whitaker makes up for it with her prowess in language.
With painstaking attention to both generational and geographical dialogue, delicious descriptions of place and an eye for character development, Ms. Whitaker paints the portrait of the artist as an evolving figure. Kayla Rae Whitaker has created an earnestly funny story about two successful women in their ‘30s struggling with the pains of past demons and addictions. She has artfully reproduced the reality of women when they are alone, casting aside feminine manners for bags of Cheetos and foul language.
“The Animators” is a quick read, with delightful language and quirky characters that are difficult to forget long after finishing the last few pages. It fills a literary gap, which has been waiting for a tale of millennial female friendship and love without tacky genre borders or stereotypes.
Courtney Linder: email@example.com or 412-263-1707. Twitter: @LinderPG.
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