Take it as a Compliment is a difficult read. Sharing real experiences of harassment, domestic violence and sexual and mental abuse, it is an important but potentially devastating book. If you have been affected by any of these issues but aren’t ready to read about them, you may not wish to continue with this article.
Taboo subjects may be gradually becoming extinct, but society, and its reflections in art, often dictate the point of view with which previously unspoken topics are approached.
There have been some dodgy incidents over the last couple of years that have shown victims of sexual abuse to be condemned for their role in the offence. Whether it’s been the hacking and distribution of private photographs or years of rape and psychological manipulation, public sympathies are often bizarrely divided. In some cases, huge numbers of people have rallied together to protest that the event be called an offence at all.
“Take it as a Compliment,” the title of illustrator Maria Stoian’s first comic, refers to society’s inability to recognise sexual harassment for what it is.
With no introduction and no blurb, the book is a shock to the system. It drops the reader into the oppressive heat of an underground station in Barcelona, where a sweat-soaked and nervous looking girl waits for a train. In the fourth panel, a green shape appears within the black and white of her skirt. She feels a hand touch her bare skin. Then another. No one notices.
The story, captioned “I was 15”, is the first of 20 graphic reconstructions of unwanted sexual attention. Collecting and illustrating personal accounts from men and women around the world, Stoian has gone to great lengths to show that stalking, domestic abuse and harassment on the street can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, colour or creed.
Ranging from children being forced to witness public urination to incidences of date rape and gaslighting, each true story is frightening in its own way. Utilising different colour palettes and styles to individualise the characters’ voices, Stoian dispels common myths about harassment by demonstrating the multitude of ways that attention can become threatening.
The styles she chooses, while still recognisable as her work, evoke the unique emotions of each narrator. In one powerful piece, a physically, sexually and verbally abusive relationship is shown in snapshots within ovals that could be both windows and picture frames. In another, the compact and blocky layout of frames trap a girl on a bus with a man who is following her home.
What is present in every story Take it as a Compliment is the lingering shame, loneliness and helplessness of its subject. Some of them are able to stand up for themselves, others aren’t sure that their discomfort is valid, but all are given respect by Stoian in her attempt to raise awareness of aggressive behaviour that is often considered a societal norm.
The language we use to talk about heavy subjects like abuse is essential for our understanding of their reality. Recognising that labels such as “victim” simply reduce a person to the result of one experience, Stoian opts for more optimistic terms like “survivor” when she contextualises the collection in a brief afterword.
While her creative and varied illustrations are essential additions to the tone and power of the compilation, it is language that is Stoian’s most significant achievement in this project. By having each story told by the person who survived it, she has conceived a method to talk about the effects of abuse, giving a voice to individuals that may have never had the opportunity to share their experience before.
Take it as a Compliment is the furthest thing from a light read as it’s possible to be, but its controversial content, while harrowing, is never off-putting. With composition as beautiful as the stories are ugly, the book challenges the reader to support social change through recognition and acceptance of what constitutes sexual harassment and abuse. The collection is an important step in reducing the amount of stories there are to tell.
Read our interview with creator Maria Stoian in Ink issue #15.
For further advice on any of the issues discussed in this article or the book itself there are also a variety of free and confidential services available in the UK: