Drawing a line from life to paper

Art: Rachel Masilamani's cartoons give voice to those all-too-familiar uncertainties of women's lives.

June 14, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Like the fragments of conversations and shards of contemporary life that Rachel Masilamani collects, clues to her calling first came in bits and pieces.

As a child in Morristown, N.J., she loved to draw. She was a natural story teller. And at Johns Hopkins University, she majored in anthropology, honing her powers of observing human nature.

But it wasn't until spring semester of her senior year when she took Tom Chalkley's cartooning class that Masilamani's intuitive, intellectual and visual skills began to crystallize into a single, tangible form: comic strips.

She discovered a knack for illustrating in words and images the subtle, difficult-to-evoke emotions and minor epiphanies of girls and women as they bump into their past, their spouses, their chilly families, their own conflicted consciences.

Those subtle, uneasy sentiments - the ones that usually evaporate once you try to express them - found dead-on articulation in Masilamani's visual narratives.

In id-exposing cartoon fashion, she knew how to take a pet peeve and turn it into a Lady Terminator's zany fantasy of vindication. One early class project concerned the "Pen Bandit," a student who never returned borrowed pens after a lecture. Masilamani pushed the notion to its most grievous extreme, leaving readers to ponder: Who is more deranged, the Pen Bandit or the woman who exacts revenge on his selfish ways?

"She's easily the most sophisticated comics creator to come through my JHU class, even though she only took her first crack at comics shortly before she became my student," says Chalkley, whose work is familiar to City Paper and Jewish Times readers. "She seems to be a natural - and please note that good comics work is not just pictures plus stories, but a dynamic, mutually supportive fusion of pictures and storytelling."

Masilamani, 23, graduated in 1999. Encouraged by Chalkley, she devoted her first summer out of school to drawing. She set the alarm early and forced herself to sketch and write, as if at work, producing over time enough material for a full-length comic book.

Her discipline paid off with a $5,000 grant to self-publish the first issue of RPM Comics. The grant came from the Xeric Foundation, established by a co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to assist aspiring cartoonists.

Masilamani, who works three days a week in the image collection department at National Geographic in Washington, is now hard at work placing her first issue in comics stores and working on future ones. She lives spartanly in a sunny one-room apartment in Charles Village, wherethe refrigerator door is a shrine to comic artist Lynda Barry, master of suburban existential despair. Barry once returned Masilamani's fan note with a letter addressed in the adolescent scrawl of her character Marlys(cq).

Masilamani, wiry and petite with antic dark eyes and large, graceful hands, is delightfully non dot-comish. She's more excited about her work than the money it may reap. And, while classmates have gone on to graduate school, exotic adventures and brash little start-ups, she gladly steeps herself in the curious clutter of overheard conversations, interesting noses and tableaus glimpsed from her MARC train perch.

Her life right now is defined by art, and by tapping into a current that links disparate sights, sounds and objects into a profoundly humanist view.

Going against the grain isn't effortless, Masilamani says. People tell you, " `You're smart, you can go places.' You feel the pressure of going in what people consider the right direction," she says. "I want to be happy and enjoy what I'm doing ." Besides, she would have regreted not even trying.

Chalkley's encouragement made a difference. "I knew I really liked what I was doing, but I wasn't sure anyone else did," she says.

When she was a little girl, Masilamani insisted that her mother read "In the Night Kitchen," by Maurice Sendak every night. Masilamani, herself, read a lot of fairy tales, novels and picture books, but didn't go for the super-hero comics.

She loved art; hated math. One dreaded math teacher from Morristown High School has resurfaced in her cartoon, "Peculiar Celebrity," complete with artsy scarf and brooch shaped like the symbol, pi.

"Peculiar Celebrity" is also a devastating take on a familiar high school figure: the groovy teacher who strives all too hard to relate to his students, particularly the sexy ones. Allowing gut emotion to form her characters' likenesses, Masilamani made the teacher "sort of unappealing, with small, piggy little eyes." Any high school grad would recognize him.

They may also recognize his defeated wife, so pregnant she's about to pop, trudging along in his shadow.

A peculiar whimsy also infiltrates RPM. In "Personality Records," Masilamani creates a carny-like oddity called "a finger recorder," using a hypnotic amalgamation of the implausible and plausible. And in a briefer, nearly wordless strip, Masilamani turns a manhole cover into a passage to India.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.