For all the misfits and truth-seekers.
Amrit Brar’s comics run on an undercurrent of darkness and humor, capturing her proclivities for botany, anatomy, horror stories, and the supernatural. But it wasn’t her evocative themes that caught me when I met her in November at Short Run Seattle, an annual art festival that features comic artists from around the U.S. and the world. It was her appearance — she looked just like me.
Brar wore a black cat-eye, leather jacket, and dark-red lips. She shot back a glimmering smile at me as I walked up to her stand. Her demeanor was reflective of her comics, an embodied buoyancy standing alongside a celebrated darkness. I left with a glossy sticker of a mean-mugging, mythical ram lined in gold and silver, reminding me of my love for Metal Yoga and my favorite sari, and a pink zine called “Raised by the Internet.”
It’s this “general existential dread that we all live with” that Brar says her comic series speak to. And while many South Asians inhabit spaces of counterculture, Brar explains the complexity of navigating them while queer, female, and of color.
“I’m always worried about sharing my work in exclusively white spaces because a lot of people end up using [narratives about South Asian culture]as a justification for their opinions on South Asians. [For example,] it’s hard to discuss patriarchy in the South Asian community without white people using that as a justification for treating my brother like garbage,” she says.
And while each illustrated series is distinct, they are fitted together with themes of death and violence. As a teen enchanted by comics that spoke to the disorder in her life, and now as an adult illustrating her memories, Brar knows that art and identity overlap in more ways people may realize.
“The comics I was reading growing up weren’t the archetypal childish media that North America gets exposed to,” Brar said. “The stuff I was reading was violent and had characters around my age dealing with death, vengeance, and betrayal.”
Brar’s early art branched from dark Japanese manga. Instead of featuring macho tropes and adult superheroes, classic horror series like Uzumaki normalized angst and the occult. Later, she discovered and drew inspiration from North American artists who also specialized in horror themes, like Edward Gorey. But it was the darkness in Japanese manga that helped Brar make sense of events in her adolescence that she didn’t fully understand until she was older.
“A lot of my family’s behavior was confusing and painful for me [due to]them leaving a country from genocide,” she says.
She told me about her early memories of death — she had two crushes, a boy and a girl, who both died by the time she was fifteen. Around the same time, Brar started heavily reading Sikh scripture. It was a turning point where she began to associate queerness and death, a running thread in her art and prose. There was a passage in the Guru Granth Sahib by the Sufi poet Farid Shakarganj that struck her.
“[Farid wrote] that we’re all considered brides to God. Regardless of gender, the bride leaves one house for another [upon death], where God is considered [the bride’s]lover…the theme is that your life’s mission is to transcend this earthly boundary and become one with a genderless, formless entity,” she explains.
In Baat Sana, a series about the South Asian horror and ghost stories that Brar grew up with, she notes that she still explores questions like “How many of my ancestral family members took [their queerness]with them [to death]and never came out?” and “Is queerness something that can only exist for me in death?”
Brar goes on to underscore the conflation of Sikh religion and culture. While she grew up with the awareness that her faith was not inherently homophobic or transphobic, she ascribes the culture as having a “backbone of intolerance.” And despite the congruency she noticed, like baptized Sikhs dressing in gender neutral clothing, Brar still worries about backlash from her community.
“I feel scrutinized by South Asian audiences because there’s this expectation for South Asian women to make our community look good and approachable, to make it look model. To make it look like a community that would never subvert or challenge anything,” she said.
Brar carries these thoughts as she plans to add more overtly queer and South Asian themes in her work over the next year.