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“Stray” portrays toxic nostalgia, intimacy, and self love in vivid color

Last updated on October 3, 2023

by Priya Saxena

Molly Mendoza’s Stray follows Jack, who has just gotten out of an unhealthy relationship and is looking to disappear into another romance in order to avoid facing their self-destructive tendencies. Mesmerizing and meditative, this graphic novel uses vivid bursts of color and nonlinear storytelling to illustrate the pain of ruminating on past trauma and trapping oneself in a toxic spiral of self-hatred. BoC had the opportunity to interview Molly Mendoza about Stray, now out in a second printing from Bulgilhan Press.

The cover of Stray by Molly Mendoza shows the window of a house through which you can see a person's hand holding a cigarette. The bulk of the cover is yellow and black diagonally split. A small black cat walks off the R in the title Stray.

Stray focuses on Jack’s inner turmoil as they struggle to move past a toxic relationship and cope with their self-hatred. Your art beautifully captures this turmoil: vivid, messy colors and elements that escape panel borders give the impression that Jack’s feelings are almost too intense and explosive to be contained by a comic. How did you approach using aspects such as color and page layout to convey Jack’s mental state?

When I put together the color story for Stray I was playing off of an idea I ran by Bulgilhan boss Zach Clemente about “toxic nostalgia.” To me, toxic nostalgia is remembering a time in your life fondly even though it was full of bad experiences. Now, someone could say, “Hey, Molly, that’s just life,” and I’d agree with them 100%. What makes it toxic is chasing the bad experiences to relive the good time, wanting to go back. The first color is yellow, the cover itself with the venetian blinds and the sunny light around a black room, represents that concept for me. It’s warm, it’s bright, it’s good and also it’s sickly, it’s cautious, it’s gilding what happens inside the house.

Thinking about color in this way was a great way to portray someone like Jack’s emotions. Their feelings are big, their love vast and their sorrow deep, they’re a romantic, and yet they don’t want anyone to know what’s going on inside. The colors paint their exterior so we can’t see how sad and blue things have truly gotten inside their mind. Meanwhile, Jack’s clothing is all black: black nail polish, little black collar, and so on. My reasoning for this is because the color black echoes those slats in the blinds–the wall between themself and everyone else. Instead, their face becomes painted by the people they meet: pink, rose-colored glasses for Amelia to convey love, red for Cody, drunk and bombastic, and for Stray we move through a spectrum of colors because their time together is so new and uncertain. Jack lives constantly outside of themself and through the ideas of other people. Maybe someone can open the blinds and see what’s really there in the dark.

That then brings me to design choices in the layout and in the character Stray. Stray and Jack both look very similar–both wear black nail polish, both have similar habits, too–and all of that was very intentional to drive home the last sequence of the story. I crop in on their hands often to make the reader question where one begins and the other ends. I don’t want to give away the ending of the book but being in love with the idea of someone and trying to be someone’s ideal person is an awful combo and these two have that down bad!

One final visual bit I wanted to touch on is the house itself. Often, when we are digging deep into Jack’s emotions, it happens inside of a house that is meant to represent Jack’s mind. I kept drawing a house with a pointed roof that wouldn’t let the sun set and that sort of visual metaphor is what leads to the house in the comic itself. Jack can’t let go, they don’t want the day to end, even if it means the sun is going to scorch the earth of their life. So if you’re reading Stray, the houses, the windows, the cats, the circles, the weird colors–it all means something. In the end, though, it’s up to the reader to decide how they feel about it! I’m so curious to know.

A major theme of this comic is the way we refuse to let go of the past and instead carry it with us into the present, even when doing so hurts us. Stray unfolds in a dreamlike manner, slipping easily from the present to the past and back again. Did Jack’s longing for the past impact the way you chose to depict time in this comic?

Yes! So depicting time in this comic was a challenge I put onto myself because I didn’t have it in me to draw another 160+ page graphic novel. I truly, truly wish this could have been a longer story where we could sit with each of these characters and catch deeper glimpses of their lives at different moments but I was still recovering from Skip. So, to hop back and forth between time I used Jack’s hair as an indicator of what timeline we were in. Short hair, blonde Jack is from the past and long hair with the blonde tips is older Jack. It was an easy solution and fed into the moment that happens near the end of the story which I find pretty touching.

I also have to depict time on the page turn where we are sort of stumbling from point to point and scene to scene. A favorite moment of mine is when Amelia is with Jack inside of the house that represents their mind. Amelia holds Jack and tells them, on the page turn, that they have to break up which causes the contents of the house to fall and collapse onto where Amelia is waiting with her bandmates to go on tour. The very next page, bits of the house are now little pieces of confetti strewn over the table where Cody and Jack are drinking. That is a lot of time for three pages but it was what I had to do to solve some of the problems I was having with Stray’s pacing.

There is an incredible tenderness in your scenes of physical intimacy, whether between Jack and Amelia or Jack and Stray. In these scenes, bodies dissolve into lines and shapes with blobs of color. It isn’t always clear whose body is whose or what body part is being depicted, but the sense of closeness is immediate. What did you hope to convey by using this style to portray physical intimacy?

When I was depicting physical intimacy in Stray I was responding to a number of paintings about self love I’d been making in the years prior. These paintings were done with water soluble crayon, sums ink, and gouache. The figures would melt into each other and take on a mood ring-like quality. Even though Stray is a story about someone’s bad relationships it also is a story about trying to love yourself where you’re at now and how difficult that can be. I believe that those paintings were necessary for me to make during a time when I felt my lowest so I wanted to give them to Jack who was going through a low point too.

When I thought about intimacy in Stray I didn’t place myself like a camera over the figures. (although I love that! If my anatomy gets better than I will draw more of this too haha) Instead, I thought about what it would be like to be in their position and I’d probably think, “Well, I’d see their eyes, their hands, a beauty mark – we are so close everything is blurry.” I focused on those things, the details: where the hands were and how they interacted with the flesh, how the eyes expressed themselves, how much you can see someone blush in the dark.

You incorporate sound effects into the comic very elegantly, so that they truly feel like part of the art. There is an “ooooo” effect associated with Amelia that crops up a few times, and my mind was blown when I noticed that the o’s sometimes cast shadows on the figures behind them, so that the sound effect straddles the line between letters and art. What role do you feel the sound effects play in telling this story?

This is a huge compliment! Thank you! I actually had struggled for a while with adding sound effects to my comics. I’m just not the best with lettering in general but, for this piece, I kind of had to get over my fear and give it a try. Because Amelia is in a band and so much of the story plays off of Jack meeting her while she was doing a set, I figured Amelia needed to always be present in a physical way even when she had moved on and wasn’t physically there. Amelia is depicted in strange ways where, at times, her face is opening like the pages of a book, or she is exaggerated in scale as she holds Jack, and all of this is to play off of how Jack remembers her. 

So, for the sound effect, I wanted it to feel like when you hear her first howl on track one of the set for her band Dad’s Beach House. The “Ooo” pops up and physically affects Jack because maybe that sound and the cd it’s on is the only real memory they actually still have of Amelia. The sound is a character too!

Tell me about the title, Stray. It seems like it could be referring to Jack’s lover, Stray, or to the stray cat that Jack meets. But it also could apply to Jack themself, as they seem lost and untethered for much of the comic. What did you want this title to evoke for readers, and how do you feel it captures what the comic is about?

Without giving too much away I do think all of those possibilities are true to this book. Stray is all of those things: to “stray away”, the lover that is Stray, Jack too is absolutely what Stray is referring to, but it takes center stage because the stray cat is actually tied to a memory of my own. I remember having bad nights when I was in my 20s, stumbling home at three in the morning. I probably had a too-heated discussion, had my heart broken, or laughed my voice raw with friends, and felt every good and awful emotion in one night. I remember running into stray cats wandering around in Portland on those walks home and stopping to pet them and say things to them. I felt so vulnerable and raw at those times and it was always a little cat rubbing against my leg that would send my emotions over the edge. The feeling of “You don’t even know me and you love me.” They didn’t. They just wanted food, but in that stupor that’s all I was feeling. Wow, isn’t it wild to feel loved even though you’re having a horrible time? Isn’t it wild to be loved when you can’t figure out just yet how to love yourself? I drew this memory so many times and probably had the memory many times over to the point that I wanted to give that moment a story of its own.

A photo of Molly Mendoza standing in front of a street mural with faces in various colors. Molly has their hair in pigtails, their arms are crossed, and they look extremely cool. Photo credit: Dani Townsend PDX

Photo credit: Dani Townsend PDX

Molly Mendoza is an artist living in Portland, Oregon. Through their work they explore the complex emotions of interpersonal relationships and self-love with a focus on layered visual storytelling, mark-making, and color. They write stories, they paint murals, they teach students, and they draw.

Priya Saxena (she/her or they/them) is a writer and critic based in New York City who enjoys reading queer comics and watching campy television. You can follow them on Twitter at @lettersofpriya.