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Images from Grieving Mall by R. Alan Brooks and illustrator Sarah Trapl. Photo courtesy of Sarah Trapl
Books

The Subtle Body Positivity of New Graphic Novel Grieving Mall

Writer R. Alan Brooks and illustrator Sarah Menzel Trapl’s novella puts a plus-size woman at the center of the narrative.

Women tend to be drawn a certain way in comic books. Enormous breasts; tiny waists; toothpick-thin legs that couldn’t possibly support a human torso in real life. And even when women are illustrating, they’re sometimes stuck drawing those same stereotypes.

Grieving Mall, a new graphic novella by Denver-based author R. Alan Brooks and Sarah Menzel Trapl, takes both the art and the artists in unexpected directions. In this work, women don’t need an “ideal” body to be fascinating, worthwhile characters.

Lorraine, Grieving Mall’s protagonist, is estranged from her mother and, unbeknownst to her, in possession of a suppressed—and supernatural—family secret. When her mother dies, Lorraine returns to the now-abandoned mall where she disposed of her mother’s talisman years ago to learn the truth. As the book’s title suggests, grief underpins the journey. “We touch on broken relationships… on sexism and oppression, and how it can affect the family,” Brooks says. “That we were able to do all that in such a short space, you know, and it kind of ends and it was like a weird, mysterious victory, which I really dig.”

R. Alan Brooks. Photo courtesy of Justine Martinez

The two collaborators met in 2016, at Denver’s now-defunct sci-fi gathering AnomalyCon. Trapl—an animator whose work with The 48 Hour Film Project has appeared in Cannes—was selling art prints and speaking on a panel. Brooks, a professor at Regis University, artist, musician and host of Mother f**ker in a Cape—a podcast about comic book creators, and nerd activists—was promoting his first graphic novel, The Burning Metronome.

Placed at adjoining tables, the pair quickly bonded. Impressed in particular by her evocative use of colors, Brooks hired Trapl in 2020 to color in the panels created by artist Kevin Caron for Anguish Garden, a graphic novel that challenged white supremacy through a Western/sci-fi lens.

Their partnership on Grieving Mall began with the visuals. Recognizing the amount of work that goes into creating images, Brooks likes to defer to the illustrator. “I feel like if an artist [wants] to draw underwater unicorns, or space frogs, or whatever, I can find a human conflict in it,” he says.

(Read More: Afrofuturism Is Alive and Well in Denver)

A conversation about environments led to the work’s principal setting. Social media images of abandoned malls provided the ideal inspiration, and helped their visions coalesce. “[Photos of malls] look so spooky, because they used to be teeming with life, and now they’re empty,” says Brooks. “I began thinking, What does that feel like, for something to have so much life and then to be devoid of life? That brought me to the idea of loss and grief, and I just built from there.”

Both the eerie aesthetic and the theme resonated with Trapl. Her grandmother, the woman who taught her to draw, died of COVID-19. “It was a really big loss for me,” she recalls. “I have a memory of her teaching me how to draw a princess dress on one of those magnetic boards. It was the first thing I learned.”

Brooks had already created the character of Lorraine when Trapl came to a realization: “I was struggling a little bit with my own art, just in general not feeling connected to it,” she says. “And part of that, I was wondering, could it be because the types of bodies I was drawing were industry standards of ‘beautiful’ bodies’? There aren’t a lot of body positive artists out there. The stereotype is big boobs and skinny.”

Photo courtesy of Sarah Trapl

The realization made Trapl, who refers to herself as a plus-sized woman, examine her own “internalized fatphobia.” Trapl approached Brooks with her insights. “I said, ‘Hey, what would you think if I made this character plus-size just to try it out?’ ”

Brooks immediately agreed, recognizing the importance of visibility both to society and to underrepresented people. After all, he’s long considered what types of people get to have their stories told. In his first book, The Burning Metronome, the lead character is an older Black man named Walter. As with Lorraine, Walter’s “otherness,” as Brooks refers to the character’s race and age, is not the focus of the story. “Just the fact that he exists in that story, as the lead, does have an effect,” says Brooks. “Much the way that Lorraine has an effect because of her humanity is what defines her as a character—not what her body is like.”

“I think a lot of artists do roleplay in a sense in their artwork, who they want to be, what they want to look like,” says Trapl. But her connection with Lorraine’s grief pushed her to relate aesthetically to the character as well. “I could see myself in her. And maybe other people will see this and, whether they notice her body or not, normalize and relate to her.”

The result is a richly textured tale that explores Lorraine’s story through her humanity, not her physique. Trapl plans to continue experimenting with different body types in her work moving forward, normalizing and representing a more diverse assortment of bodies. “I’m not saying my fatphobia is cured or anything … it’s something so intrinsic,” she says. “But it’s started a conversation with myself—touching on the creative side of that.”

Grieving Mall will be available digitally ($2.99) at comiXology and in hard copy ($5) at select bookstores beginning September 19. Brooks and Trapl will sign copies and discuss their project at a release party at 4 p.m. Sunday, September 19, at Mutiny Information Cafe, 2 South Broadway. Learn more on the Facebook page.

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