A Paradox of Faith is the first issue in L Nichols’ autobiographical comic charting her struggle to reconcile her faith and sexuality as she grows up. Religion and sexuality can be volatile, delicate themes to address, but Nichols’ avoids being overtly critical, mainly because her experience at this stage is internally contained, as no one else is yet aware she is gay. In a interview with Sean T Collins for The Comics Journal last month Nichols talked about how identifying oneself as religious has become almost akin to ‘coming out’ as gay. It’s an interesting point: broadly speaking, religion is being scrutinised and dissected like never before, while the issue of gay rights is very slowly being pulled to the forefront towards mainstream acceptance.
Flocks’ primary quality is its penetrating honesty: the simple depiction of Nichols’ fight with herself, the sincerity of her beliefs at odds with what she knows to be the truth of her sexuality, the two knotting together into a torturous, conflicted turmoil, which is almost tangible in presence: her distress reeks off the page. Raised as a Christian but aware of her feelings towards women at a young age, she spends her time trying to cleanse herself of her sexual identity and hiding it from those around her. It’s horrendous and wrenching to follow and watch as she ups her religious efforts to drown out her feelings and quite literally’straighten’ herself out; attending Bible classes once a week, then twice a week, going to Christian camp, being baptised again. Her kiss with a girl leaves her ashamed and horrified.
The potency of the teenage years is something that has been explored thoroughly in culture: a pivotal age when you first really become conscious of a sense of self, begin forming and developing as a person and an identity, a transition often made more difficult by the need to fit in. Having identified herself through her faith for all her life, her beliefs the filter through which she understands the world, Nichols’ sexual awakening throws her whole identity into question. She is a Christian, but she is gay and Christianity says homosexuality is wrong, therefore this means there is something wrong with her. On some level, she is aware that her sexuality is true and real: she never attempts to get a boyfriend and makes the occasional overture towards other girls, but in possession of a set of beliefs and values that she has grown up with, and which denigrate her sexual identity, she excruciatingly continues to try and quash, deny and hide who she is.
Nichols depicts herself as a soft, articulated doll, stuffed with sawdust and with cross stitched buttons for eyes, mirroring her feelings of insubstantiality: filled yet empty. The buttoned eyes give a curious sense of blankness and confusion, the crossed x’s cancelling her out and reinforcing that wrongness. Religion traditionally encourages a strong sense of community, borne from the persecuted minorities flocking together. The analogy of shepherds as guiders and protectors of their flock is not the focus here, but rather the group mentality of sheep blindly following one another. Nichols’ choice of avatar further disconnects her from those around her, who are oblivious of this strange stuffed doll in their midst. She is both fearful of discovery and incredulous at their failure to recognise her difference, but of course this is only the way she sees herself. Indeed, there’s something creepy and off about the townspeople, in their silence and complete non-involvement, emphasising the distance -whether real or perceived- between her and them.
Despite the topical nature of her subjects, Nichols retains an even handed, non-judgmental tone, perhaps because the focus is largely on her individual struggle here. Discussions and stories about religion and homosexuality are still rare, so it makes me proud to see it being done in comics and done in such a beautiful, resonant and evocative manner. Most of this first issue is available online at Nichols site, and I would encourage anyone looking for an intelligent, insightful and moving read to head over there. Nichols recently set up a subscription service for the future issues of Flocks and it’s one I’m happily subscribing to, because honestly, comics like this are few and far between.