Operation Margarine is an iconic motorcycle death trip comic about two women’s escape from the caged world of their surroundings by Katie Skelly published by AdHouse Books available this month wherever fine books are sold
I am actually fairly new to the Katie Skelly game. I first heard about her work after seeing Brandon Graham’s Operation Margarine Pinup.
It was kind of one of those things, the more I looked into, the more it was like, “oh wow, this is very much what I get into”. Skelly has a clever 70s pop comic aesthetic married to deep cut film love style that if you’ve read my writing on Guy Peellaert or like, read any of my own comics, know is very much what I’m about(Katie Skelly has also herself written on Peellaert in a pretty must read article too).
And while I enjoyed Nurse Nurse, which I think operates best as an almost ideas per page kind of book, Operation Margarine was the book I was looking forward to reading the minute I saw the Scorpio Rising jackets, and the cool art house/exploitation film interior panel composition.
Operation Margarine is a powerhouse book when it comes to just power chord iconic shot choices for its panel interiors.
Check in these two panels the directional tension of oppositional panels married to just flat out mean mugging from one rider to the next. That focus on Bon-Bon’s face(dark hair) to survive, and Margarine’s fuck you defiance, shown with just that ballooning eyeball angling back across the page. And then Billy’s(with the glasses and two different colored eyes) surprised look at that defiance. The how dare you of the furrowed brow, the surprise marks, and the exclamation mark–with the block sound effects revving up against the direction of that panel to create the power of the motorcycle roaring through.
In many ways, the core tension which gives Operation Margarine it’s anthemic iconic energy comes from a vacillation between these emotive close-up shots, and it’s open wide shot expanses. This energy is best conveyed throughout the work the more basic the page layouts become. In fact, Operation Margarine is a class in the modulation of dramatic energy through the complication or simplification of page layout. Much of the early pages of the book are pages with greater than 4 panels per page. The last 2/3rds of the book largely open up into a dramatic pattern of the iconic pages of less than four panels and the pages used to distill their impact through panel counts greater than 4.
These early page layouts mirror the restriction and careful planning of Margarine’s caged world. Margarine is because of her gender ostensibly institutionalized by the world around her that wants her to conform to the set out role of her princess-dom. She’s caged up and waiting, and her resistance to that situation is viewed by the world around her as madness. And rather than simply wait to be the prize of someone else’s adventure, Margarine escapes to a world entirely of her choosing.
And to correspond with that, the book opens up into these power pages of four panels or less.
It is these pages where Operation Margarine really sings. The book plays to dual strengths of cinematic panel composition and emotive closeup power to build pages, that could never be as big as they feel. OM gets so much mileage just out of it’s characters eyes, and little sweat beads. But it’s also the modulation of black and white. The white bricks of the top panel match up with the white background of the second panel to underscore the interiority of the third panel which goes to black to underscore Margarine’s internal stress. And that top panel…enough can’t be said about panels like that. The performative qualities of Bon-Bon’s body language toward Margarine, and Margarine’s own conveyed uncertainty with the bike. I’m almost certain it’s a quote from a film, I can’t quite remember. Additionally, that panel sets up the space which the two close-ups exist in. This page construction allows for an almost primordial engagement with the core elements that make up the magic of the comic’s medium–and by boiling the medium down to this kind of minimalist quality–it allows the beauty of these characters to shine through, both in terms of their characterization–but also in terms of their pop-iconic-ness(wordddds).
This page inverts the formula by starting off with the close-ups and then creating an intense panning back. This allows for the emotion of the top two panels to paint the more open and removed bottom panel. Comics are in some ways always about what you drag into the next panel from the last, and every panel is the accumulation of everything that comes before it, even as it powers everything that comes after it.
This is another page that gets it’s power from it’s simplicity. The lower panel count allows for a greater play in terms of scale within the panels themselves. And what we get here are two close-ups that create the space for the bottom panel to feel more immense. Bon-Bon and Margarine’s heads are both as big as the figure used for the bottom landscape, which makes them almost shrink even further into that landscape–and it creates a release, in conjunction with the removal of dialog balloons, which is married to the sensibility of the page itself, which is that of “let’s just ride this forever”.
These middle open spaces of Operation Margarine also serve to create the dramatic space on which it’s apocalyptic ending gets so much of its power. The net effect of Operation Margarine, and the reason I wanted to write about it, is that dynamic pop power of 70s film aesthetic married to the core principles which make comics such a dynamic and powerful medium. It is a pure kind of comics. And for someone often times mired in the complicated layouts of Guido Crepax, a nice refresher course on the benefits of this approach. I read Operation Margarine on a PDF, but my sense reading it was that I could have read it in a book as big as newspapers and it would still not feel big enough. Operation Margarine is a testament to the creation of space within the comics form, and how that space can be used to create a complex nuanced drama. Also, uh, leather, sex, death, and motorcycles.