Katie Skelly's previous comic book Nurse Nurse was a science fiction epic, set in the far-flung future, involving space travel and space pirates, and featuring some kicky fashions. It earned and deserved its comparisons to Barbarella, even if what the two shared was more a spirit and tone than anything else.
Her latest book, Operation Margarine, is also something of a genre work, although the genre is quite literally a more down-to-earth one. Something between a cautionary, youth-gone-wild flick and an exploitative biker picture, it suggests the sort of movies that Roger Corman used to produce for the drive-in, that Mystery Science Theater 3000 would mock and that Quentin Tarantino might enthusiastically praise and make some allusion to in one of his own films.
But, like Nurse Nurse, it's all unmistakably Katie Skelly. The characters are quiet, mysterious and only barely sketched out symbol-people. The events flow like dominoes, with no grand plan or theme or message apparent. The thrills are visceral, surface thrills, the action and actions all communicated in a straightforward manner that gives every panel an equal amount of import.
And the art is just so damn good-looking. Skelly's design suggests that it shares a common ancestor with manga, but also with children's book or editorial illustration; it would be fascinating to unravel the inspirational lineage that brought us her flat, big-headed, big-eyed, just-detailed-enough human figures, with their contradictory subtle-yet-outsized emotions.
So here's the story, which publisher AdHouse is coy about both on the back-of-the-cover copy and on its website: Pixie-haired, elfin-bodied Margarine Litres (introduced via a text panel as "Rich Girl Runaway") has escaped from a mental institution, much to the disappointment of her mother. She meets Bon-Bon ("Trouble Tuff Girl"), who is crying over an as-yet unrevealed heartache, and shows concern; Bon-Bon repays her kindness by punching out a guy who's annoying Margarine (whom she refers to as "Marge").
Together the two girls hop on Bon-Bon's motorcycle and ride away from the city, deep into the desert. Attempts at bonding are rebuffed and then forgotten ("Let's skip this part," Bon-Bon says when Margarine asks where she's from), but they both share in common the fact that they are wanted: Bon-Bon in the "by the police" sense, Margarine in the "lost dog" posters up and reward offered sense.
In the desert, they encounter a snotty waitress, a creepy vagrant, a vicious motorcycle gang, vultures and nuns, all the while being pursued by Bon-Bon's archenemy. They do movie bonding stuff, swimming in a pond, riding bikes like they're in Easy Rider and so on. It culminates in a big fight — will they make it out alive?
Skelly's designs illustrate the yin-yang of the two girls: Bon-Bon's hair is thick and black, and she wears a black leather jacket over her otherwise white clothes. Margarine has short white hair (well, it's orange on the cover, but white on the insides) and a short white dress with black highlights.
Their pursuer, the leader of the motorcycle gang The Faces of Death, is Billy, whose mismatched eyes have one back pupil and one white pupil; her long white hair in sharp contrast to her black leather jacket and black thigh-highs.
A sort of minicomic road movie narrative handsomely packaged, Operation Margarine tells of a life-changing adventure between two soulmate best friends in as directly and emphatically a way as possible, as if the reader were alone on the road with Skelly on the next motorcycle over.
It's Thelma and Louise with better hair. And a happier ending.