Hair Cares

Hot Comb

By H Felix Chau Bradley

A review of Hot Comb by Ebony Flowers

Published on November 18, 2019

In her lively debut collection of short comics, Ebony Flowers illustrates the lives of Black women and girls, using hair as a way to explore self-image, intimacy, family bonds, friendship, racism, and colonization. Hot Comb’s titular story is a coming-of-age tale, in which a young girl begs her mother for a perm and endures the chemical pain of it, only to be teased mercilessly the next day by the peers she wanted to impress.

Black hair, its care and its codes, is central to each narrative, as is the social space that opens up around it. Often, Flowers portrays her characters getting their hair done at salons or by friends or relatives. Conversation starts to flow as one woman combs another’s hair, parts and clips it, twists it. Worries, memories, and hopes start to spill out. In “Sisters & Daughters,” Latreece takes her daughter to the park, where her sister meets up with her to do her hair. As the sisters’ hair date gets underway, Latreece laments her girl’s childishness. At first, it’s hard to sympathize – her daughter is very young, and Latreece’s attitude seems overly harsh. But as her sister does her hair and they keep talking, family history emerges, and we begin to understand Latreece’s own childhood and the ways in which early responsibility has made her brittle. We also see her sister working to soften her, as she works her hair into a new shape. “Hold your head down,” she directs, as Latreece brings up old family hurts, and “Let that girl be a kid for a while.” There is no emotional epiphany at the end of this vignette, just a small shift, a slight relaxation brought on by sisterly care in the space of a hair date.

Hot Comb
Ebony Flowers

Drawn & Quarterly
$24.95
paper
184pp
9781770463486

Flowers has a striking illustration style, recalling the bold drawings of Lynda Barry, a teacher of hers. Some of the most compelling images in Hot Comb are the full-page recreations of classic magazine ads promoting Black hair-care products: “Kali Serum: Change Your Hair to Fit Your Lifeform,” “Kinky Mane,” “Kenya Kare: Kinks and Koils Forever.” Flowers’s lines are thick and assured, and she expertly conjures movement and changing moods through visual rhythm. In “Big Ma,” a young girl dances to a record in her grandmother’s house. The music pulses as our eyes move through the cascading frames, which culminate in a full-page scene of lyrical abandon. In “My Lil Sister Lena,” another young girl begins anxiously ripping her hair out, curl by curl, in reaction to the racial microaggressions of her white swim teammates. We watch as she tugs each hair out, winds it around her fingers, lets it fall to the ground, until, after two pages of tightly framed hair-pulling, we, like her mother, are dismayed to find that she now has a bald spot. The effect is visceral – the physical embodiment of the teasing she continues to endure, even if she can’t speak of it.

The drawings that accompany the title pages of each story also form their own wordless arc. The narrative that emerges counteracts some of the stress and pain undergone by the women and girls of Hot Comb. A child stands outside in a gathering rainstorm: at first, she looks worried that the rain will ruin her hair, but slowly, she smiles and relaxes. Eventually she begins to dance in the downpour, and finally, she stands there dripping, hair frizzy – the storm has passed and her hair got soaked, and she’s grinning from ear to ear. mRb

H Felix Chau Bradley is a writer and editor living in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). They are the author of Personal Attention Roleplay and Automatic Object Lessons. They are an editor for This Magazine and Le Sigh, an acquisitions editor for Metonymy Press, and the host of Strange Futures, a speculative fiction book club via Librairie Drawn & Quarterly.

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