Lately, cartoonist and animator Aminder Dhaliwal has been drawing monsters. “It might have been a result of drawing women for so long,” she says, referring to her acclaimed debut graphic novel, Woman World, “but I started drawing more grotesque things. It slowly segued into the idea of sexualizing monsters.” Dhaliwal drew a cartoon of a cyclops woman with a single breast and posted it on Instagram to delighted responses. This became the seed of her latest funny, socially-aware, fantasy graphic novel, Cyclopedia Exotica, to be published by Drawn & Quarterly in April.
Cyclopedia Exotica takes place in a world in which cyclopes live alongside two-eyed people and are treated as a minority group. The book opens as an encyclopedia of cyclops history, biology, and culture before a cyclops interrupts the columns of facts to say, “Blegh! What a dull way to learn about a minority.” From that point, the cyclopes take over the story.
The loose narrative follows several groups of characters as they navigate the strange, often silly, but undeniably familiar issues of cyclopean vs. two-eyed society. The cast includes a model and activist who was the first cyclops to pose in her world’s equivalent of Playboy, a cyclops/two-eyed couple expecting their first baby, a victim of failed eye-separation surgery who is dealing with his body issues, and a pair of provocative avant-garde cyclops artists whose works the other characters struggle to understand. They inhabit a world of cyclops-focused phone apps and beauty products, thorny interspecies dating etiquette, anti-cyclops slogans like ADAM & EVE NOT ADAM & ONE-EYE, and a socially conscious children’s book, Suzy’s One Eye.
Born and raised in England, Dhaliwal moved with her family to Ontario in the 1990s when she was in middle school. Growing up, the first comics she noticed were Archie comic books, which were everywhere in India when she visited the country on family trips. But her interest in comics wasn’t really sparked until high school, when a student exchange program landed her in the room of a Vancouver student who owned a collection of Shonen Jump, an English-language edition of the popular Japanese manga magazine. “I remember going to the school for the program,” she recalls, “but in my head I was just counting how long until I could get back to her room to read more.”
After high school, Dhaliwal enrolled in Sheridan College in Ontario to pursue a career in animation, which had fascinated her from early childhood. “That background in animation got me excited about giving things life,” she says. “It didn’t really set me up for writing or that much narrative storytelling, but it did give me the fundamentals of drawing and the discipline to do something again and again and again.”
Dhaliwal moved to L.A. in 2011 after college and became a flexible talent in the animation industry, writing, storyboarding and directing for series including The Fairly OddParents, Sanjay and Craig and The Owl House, while working for Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney Television Animation. Working on storyboards pushed her to develop her narrative skills and become more adept at building plots and characters.
The life of a working animator includes a lot of downtime between projects and airdates, so Dhaliwal began to fill that time with personal projects in comics and illustration. “I was exhausted at not being able to share the things I made,” she explains. “A huge element of being an artist is getting to share what you draw.” Dhaliwal began posting her art on Instagram and found renewed satisfaction in the give-and-take with her online audience. “I got to this low point where I felt like I wasn't drawing for myself, I was just drawing for companies,” she says, “so it was all about rebuilding what it meant to be an artist for me.”
Inspired by the Women's March
Dhaliwal’s first graphic novel, Woman World, was inspired by the 2017 Women’s March. “I saw all the signs that said, ‘The Future Is Female,’ and I was thinking on that for a while, about what it would be like if the future was female.” Dhaliwal sketched some gags set in a post-apocalyptic world without men and posted them online. In one, the women hold a council to debate, “What will the straight women do?!” only to decide they all skewed bi anyway.
Readers loved the comics. “I had a couple of ideas for gags and jokes,” Dhaliwal says, “and before I knew it, it started taking off and I enjoyed living in that world more and more.”
Woman World follows a small colony of survivors in a world where men have gone extinct, from an elderly trans woman trying to remember enough to be the community’s keeper of history to a little girl whose only knowledge of men comes from a DVD of Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Together they build a new Beyonce-worshipping, clothing-optional society. In short, humorous sequences, the women scavenge the ruins of civilization, grow food, fall in and out of love, work on plans to repopulate the planet, and meditate on cosmic questions like, “Why did men have nipples?”
Setting a comedy in the ruins of global disaster came naturally to Dhaliwal. “You watch post-apocalyptic movies sometimes and they're just so furious,” she says. “Sometimes things happen, and as horrifying as they are, it's a very human thing to joke about them. The way we deal with trauma and hardships is to make a joke or to make something silly.”
After studying and sketching many different mythological monsters to brainstorm ideas, Dhaliwal was drawn to using cyclopes because “except for the fact that they sometimes appear as gigantic monsters, anatomically they just have the eye as the only difference. It was interesting to think about how one difference could create a chasm between two groups of people and define them as monsters.”
Cyclopedia Exotica is dedicated “to those who don’t feel seen,” and the nature of the cyclops inspires irresistible metaphors around eyes, being seen, and who owns society’s gaze. A cyclops is “a creature with one eye at the mercy of these other creatures who have two eyes, feeling like you're being judged twice as much,” says Dhaliwal. “You're being stared at, but you don't feel like you're being seen.” In one sequence, based on Dhaliwal’s own experience, a cyclops woman endures stares and slurs from a disturbed woman on a bus, while the other passengers awkwardly avert their eyes, until the cyclops finds a way to fight back. But just as often, the premise provides opportunities for visual gags, eye puns, and unexpected anatomical jokes (in the world of Cyclopedia Exotica, cyclops women have one breast…but a surprising number of vaginas).
Both Woman World and Cyclopedia Exotica use fantastical settings to tell stories about marginalized people, social justice, and communities with diverse casts of characters. Dhaliwal, like many writers, finds that speculative fiction makes it easier to grapple with real-world issues and opens up unexpected possibilities. “I love fantasy and I love sci-fi,” she says, “and it's easier to intake issues through that lens.”
While Woman World is a lightly connected series of gags and short scenarios, Cyclopedia Exotica has a firmer narrative arc, in which the characters evolve, interact, and reach personal resolution by the end of the book. Dhaliwal says she came up with a “blueprint” to give some form and direction to her typically free-flowing comedy. Although, she adds, “there are times now that I open up Woman World and I'm really happy that it doesn't have much of a narrative arc. You can pick it up, read a couple of comics, and put it down.”
In the end, Dhaliwal hopes readers connect to the characters in Cyclopedia Exotica, regardless of eye count. “I hope they can see a little bit of themselves in it, on both sides. Hopefully there are enough good two-eyed characters in there as well as good cyclopes,” she says. “But to find a little bit of yourself in a book is always heartwarming.”