By Karen Libby
Ellis, Grace and Hannah Templer. Flung Out of Space: Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith. Abrams ComicArts Surely, New York, 2022.
2021 would have been Patricia Highsmith’s 100th birthday and 2022 was the 70th anniversary of Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (1952), a book often called the first American novel to give lesbian characters a happy ending. These anniversaries provide the opportunity to reflect on Highsmith, her writing, and her impact—the good and bad of it—which cartoonists Grace Ellis and Hannah Templer do in Flung Out of Space: Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith (2022). Ellis and Templer’s semi-fictionalized biography of Highsmith follows her developing career as she writes superhero and romance comics for income while writing her first two novels, Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Price of Salt. The cartoonists also detail Highsmith’s discriminatory attitudes and tense relationship with her own sexuality, referencing (and recommending) five formal biographies on the author. Flung Out of Space is a compelling read for those interested in the history of LGBTQ+ literature censorship and who wonder how to talk about historical figures who did groundbreaking work but perpetuated discrimination.
Highsmith’s history in writing comics in the 1940s is often overlooked in scholarly and popular biographies of the author as her name did not attain wide recognizability until the publication of Strangers on a Train. Ellis and Templer’s version of Highsmith refers to herself as “Pat,” which I will also do in this review when referring to the character; when referring to Patricia Highsmith’s actual history, I will use “Highsmith.” Pat herself downplays her involvement in the comics medium, viewing it only as a job to do to fund her existence, psychoanalyst appointments, and writing of “good novels” like Strangers on a Train and The Price of Salt (Ellis & Templer 111). When a female lover finds one of Pat’s comics and expresses confusion over it, as Pat had said she is writing a novel, Pat says, “Well, I wouldn’t call them ‘suspense novels’ as much as just ‘good novels.’ But I also write, uh, garbage” (111). Pat’s relationship to comics is a reluctant, spiteful one. The dismissals of comics by Pat herself and in the biographies written about her in Highsmith’s career obscure the impact that comics had on Highsmith’s prose writing, something that Ellis and Templer hope to correct. Flung Out of Space shows how comics and prose come together to create the whole that is Patricia Highsmith. In one spread, we see Pat typing. One half of her is at her desk at home, imagining the plot of Strangers on a Train, while the other half is at her desk at Exciting Comics, imagining the plot to a superhero comic. Both worlds take up the same amount of space, showing readers, though Pat may disagree, that comics and prose are equals.
In addition to portraying both media as equals on the page, Ellis and Templer also illustrate the impact Highsmith’s work in comics had on her novel writing by blending visual styles when showing Pat writing comics stories, Strangers on a Train, and The Price of Salt. The illustrations of Strangers in Flung Out of Space are black and white, as is most of The Price of Salt. However, while Strangers is represented with solid black and white with very few midtones, The Price of Salt is rendered with a range of tones—in a visual style similar to the illustrations of Pat’s comics stories, though the comics are illustrated in a range of orange. The final scene of The Price of Salt incorporates some orange: adding color to the characters and including a solid orange section of the background. The characters are drawn less cartoonish than the superhero comics but not as angular as the characters of Strangers. Templer’s blending of stylistic elements show that all Highsmith’s writing built off one another.
Along with exploring Highsmith’s distaste for comics, Flung Out of Space also directly faces Highsmith’s history of racism, antisemitism, and other forms of bigotry. Over half of Ellis’ author’s note is dedicated to Highsmith’s issues: “The protagonist of this story is not a good person… I think it’s important that we reckon with that. Not every influential or important figure deserves to be put on a pedestal, including women and LGBTQ people” (Ellis & Templer n.p.). When Pat is set up on a blind date with a Jewish male cartoonist Stanley Lieber (Stan Lee) by one of her colleagues, Templer depicts her reaction to his name with a dark scowl. Pat also refuses to call her psychotherapist by her Jewish married last name, and she sexually harasses the doctor (66). These are only a few examples of Highsmith’s bigotry portrayed by Ellis and Templer. When Pat begins writing The Price of Salt, her discriminatory views fade out of Flung Out of Space. She is still short-tempered with others, but after a final dig at Stan Lee’s Jewishness (Ellis and Templer 114), she does not make any more outwardly bigoted comments. This shift runs the risk of communicating to readers that, through writing The Price of Salt, Highsmith changed her discriminatory views, which is not the case. Continuation of Highsmith’s bigotry through the end of the comic could have made Ellis and Templer’s exploration of this problematic historical figure stronger and prompted consideration of how Highsmith’s politics may have manifested in her writing; however, this analytical work can also be done by readers of Highsmith’s work.
Overall, Ellis and Templer’s narrative of Highsmith’s attempt to get The Price of Salt published in hardcover but only receiving offers to publish it as pulp grapples with the categorization of “good novels” (to borrow Pat’s wording). “Pulp” refers to paperback novels printed on cheap paper, popular in the mid-20th-century. Since pulps were cheaper to print than hardcover books, pulp publishers were more willing to publish controversial (such as queer) texts. However, pulps were considered less literary than hardcovers.
Pat’s struggle to get a publisher to buy The Price of Salt shows the censorship and treatment of LGBTQ literature in the American 1950s. Pat pitches the novel to four hardcover publishers who repeatedly reject the novel for indecency (Ellis and Templer 177). With each of these comments, Pat is depicted as less confident, more distressed, and physically smaller. When she finally meets with a publisher willing to buy the book, the offer is to print it as a pulp novel. With this exchange, Ellis and Templer take a bit of artistic liberty—the novel was first printed as a hardcover in 1952, but it only took off in significant popularity in 1953 after its pulp reprint (James 296). The cartoonists are making a more general statement about the position of lesbian and gay writers in the midcentury.
Ellis and Templer’s musing on censorship of lesbian literature, using Highsmith as a historical example, is particularly poignant right now. The first few years of the 2020s have seen a dramatic increase in anti-LGBTQ regulations, many focusing on literature. Queer books are being banned and removed from classrooms and school (and public) libraries, and there are efforts to restrict the sale of LGBTQ-themed books to minors. Their exploration of a historical trend of queer censorship is especially powerful as a comic. Comics, especially, are being targeted; the number one challenged book in 2022 was Maia Kobabe’s comic Gender Queer: A Memoir (“Top 13 Most Challenged Books”). Comics allow for direct visual representations of queerness that challenge systems of heteronormativity within literature. Furthermore, the association between comics and children makes them a particularly targeted subject by the hands of censors. Flung Out of Space affirms the complexity of the comics medium while using it to expose the ways that queerness in literature has been historically policed.
Many of the challenges facing queer literature, whether legally enforced or just proposed, mirror the language of midcentury American obscenity and anti-pornography laws. Creating Flung Out of Space in the middle of these emergent restrictions acts as a direct protest and call to action to queer readers and writers. With a long history of cleverly working within and breaking the rules, LGBTQ literature has never been and will not be fully suppressed. Learning the history of LGBTQ publishing, especially in an accessible and engaging form like Flung Out of Space, gives hope for the continued presence of queer literature and, possibly, tactics for ensuring that presence in the face of contemporary restrictions.
James, Jenny M. “Maternal Failures, Queer Futures: Reading The Price of Salt (1952) and Carol (2015) against Their Grain.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 24 no. 2, 2018, p. 291-314, muse.jhu.edu/article/696683.
“Top 13 Most Challenged Books of 2022,” American Library Association, April 21, 2023. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10 (Accessed August 22, 2023).