The Cat’s Meow

Well into the saga of Omaha, in a double page of silent snapshots, the writer Kate Worley and artist Reed Waller depict what some of the characters are doing on Christmas Day morning. Amongst the photos is one of JoAnne Follett. JoAnne has been in the story since the beginning and been shown to be a manipulator, a prostitute, a blackmailer, a woman sleeping her way to the top and at the point were the story was cut off, involved in a murder case of a prominent senator found dead from a gun shot wound to the head during an S&M session with her. She is the kind of woman that you would have as a friend-but wouldn’t trust an inch. What the picture depicts is JoAnne at Morning Mass, in saintly contemplation – the epitome of a good Catholic girl who probably believes that all her sins will one day be forgiven and she will receive her eternal reward.

Up to this point, Worley and Waller have given no indication in the tale that JoAnne is a practising Catholic and its quite a shock to realise, that even after all this time, when the readers think that they have got the characters in Omaha down pat, Worley and Waller still manage to pull back the curtains a little to show that there is always more then you think. And it’s this whole paradox that is an integral part of the magic show that is Omaha the Cat Dancer.

Omaha the Cat Dancer panel 1
Omaha the Cat Dancer © Reed Waller & Kate Worely

First off, it’s important to say that Omaha is not porn. Yes, there is a lot of sex and it’s all explicit. In fact, with Omaha’s first issue, that was its selling point, only in later years did the amount of sex lessen (though not get any less explicit) and the storyline take more prominence. But the sex is between consenting adults and part of loving relationships, the fact that some of the sex is used as a manipulative tool and can be gratuitous only serves to reiterate that we are reading an adult story, about adults, with all the failings and successes that entails.

Omaha started life, with artist Reed Waller, as an underground comix, and in its early issues, it shows. It’s not that it’s bad. No, the art and writing is quite capable, but compared to the clean, beautiful Carl Barks style of later years it depicts someone just starting out, so it can (like the early issues of Cerebus) be hard to take. Plus all that black inking!! Waller likes to tell the tale of when he first took Omaha to a printer; he was told that this may not be able to be done.

“Is it the sex?” asks Waller.

“No” replies the printer, “It’s all the black”

With the arrival of a female writer, Kate Worley on the second issue, the story took a more firm feel, with characters and subplots arriving thick and fast and driftwood being cast aside. Worley also bucked the trend of female writers at the time by not introducing a feminist stance and casting the female characters like Omaha, Shelly or JoAnne as victims, but part of the burgeoning movement of “girl power” before it was first uttered in vacuous statements by The Spice Girls.
For example- Omaha and Shelley may be nude dancers, but both girls like the life and the adoration they receive from their punters. JoAnne is a part- time prostitute, but sees no problem with it. She pities more the girls who work on checkouts for minimum wage. Worley also created what could possibly be one of comicdoms first realistic portrayal of a homosexual character in the photographer Rob Shaw. Paradoxically, in a comic full of sex, Rob gets partners, but no sex scenes. Guess some readers were not ready for a certain type of sex. Come to think of it, sex gets put in quite a positive stance in Omaha. There’s very little mention of sexual disease or Aids, date rape, abortion or homophobia. Sometimes, you feel that some of the criticisms from readers in the comics’ letter pages about Omaha’s sunny stance were justified.

Omaha the Cat Dancer panel 2
Omaha the Cat Dancer © Reed Waller & Kate Worely

But Rob gets one of the best lines in the whole saga when he’s asked by Chuck about his partners. Rob replies that he’s not had a steady lover for over two years, and that his last long-time partner died. Chuck is just about to ask whether he died from Aids when Rob says no: -“It was a car crash. “Our kind” mostly dies in the same stupid ways as anyone else”.

Secondly, Omaha is a soap opera; it wears its heart on its sleeve. All the soap opera basics are present and correct. From the sudden reappearance of someone thought dead to the revelation of a dark family secret, the right-on social agenda to the breaking and reforming of relationships, Omaha’s secret marriage. Scheming, plotting, backstabbing-it’s all there, but without the limits imposed upon its television equivalent. Omaha can, and does, go further. But there is no Sex in the City patronising or moralising here. Good relationships are hard work and whilst the story does suffer at times from a lack of real cynicism it’s nice to see a couple such as Omaha and Chuck work through their troubles. It must be said though, that Chuck does come across as a bit of an asshole. You sometimes wonder what Omaha sees in him (now that I’ve re-read the series for the review I’ve realised that most of the male characters do come across as a bit thick-headed. Mmmm, perhaps Worley was saying something after all).

Omaha the Cat Dancer panel 3
Omaha the Cat Dancer © Reed Waller & Kate Worely

And last, but certainly not the least, as it’s in your face straight away, Omaha is a “funny animal” comic-book.

All the characters in the comic are animals in a style termed anthromorphophism or personification – that is, giving non-human entities human likenesses and traits. But there is no Maus style grittiness or parallel here, Worley and Waller wanted their characters to have certain traits and depicting them as animals enabled them to do this. Omaha and Chuck are cats, so they have a strong streak of independence. Friends Shelley and Rob are dogs, so are sociable; JoAnne is a bird, therefore flirty and quick-witted. Again, with this goes a certain feel. For example, Omaha is a cat, so she has a slinkiness that goes well with her profession as a dancer, the murdered senator, Bonner, is a bull, thick-skinned and used to getting his own way, the detective investigating the senator’s murder is a bulldog and so has a care-worn, hang-dog about him. But that’s as far as it goes. All the characters are bipedal and wear human clothes (except for shoes), live in houses and apartments, eat normal human food and have the same social and political structure as humans. Genitalia are human and the only thing that differentiates the world of Omaha from ours is that they all have snouts, tails, horns etc.

Of course, this has all been done before, primarily with Crumb’s classic Fritz the Cat. But whereas Fritz was mostly a political and sexual satire, Omaha is about censorship. Mostly the zoning laws that was prevalent during the Reagan/Bush Senior eras. Omaha has been described as nothing but a nubile fantasy, but it had a more solid grounding in local politics than some reviewers realised.

Omaha came to a sudden end when the partnership of Waller/Worley fell apart (Waller is a `Nam vet and admits that this has caused him problems) and it had taken a long time for them to even get on speaking terms. Production had just re-started on Omaha when Worley finally succumbed to the cancer that had been ravaging her for the last few years (I could also go into the ways that the American medical system discriminates against freelancers with no regular income, but this is not the time or place), but hopefully her husband, James Vance (writer/artist of Kings In Disguise, another very well recommended graphic novel), will be able to finally bring the tale to its end.

Omaha the Cat Dancer is hard to find in this country due to its sexual content (another gripe, for another time), but some shops have a few copies of the graphics and they are available online. All six are worth seeking out, beautifully drawn and written, but as I’ve mentioned- a little on the sunny side of life.

Omaha the Cat Dancer is written by Kate Worley and illustrated by Reed Waller, published by Kitchen Sink and Fantagraphics.

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