Collage in Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat BooksCollage 1: an artistic composition made of various materials (as paper, cloth, or wood) glued on a picture surface 2: the art of making collages 3: an assembly of diverse fragments <a collage of ideas> 4: a work (as film) having disparate scenes in rapid succession without transitions
I am one of a band of women in a Young Adult Materials class at Rutgers who fell in love with Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat series. We are fans of Witch Baby’s struggle and snarlball hair, of the superman disguises that protect Dirk’s tender heart, of the way Block surprises and charms us with her poetic words and images. We love the stories’ romance and fairytale magic, but we appreciate the characters’ real-world difficulties and pain. We are amused by our introduction to funky Weetzie West-coast culture, yet leap with recognition at the familiar human needs and struggles beneath the foreign trappings. We want to talk about the books, to write about them, to share them.
Yet so much is complex and compelling in these short little gems that it is difficult to find a satisfactory way to contain them. Somehow, it doesn’t seem enough just to discuss the fairytale allusions or the language or the use of color or the character development or any other single aspect of the book. Much of the charm and power of the books lie in the ways Block combines and brings that which was disparate together in new ways: how she uses collage.
One of the more obvious uses of collage is as a technique of characterization, for some of Block’s characters make their own collages. In Baby Be-Bop, one of the ways we come to know Dirk is as a collage of the men after whom he styles himself. In order to try to define and protect himself, he takes on aspects of the dress and manner of his heroes — James Dean, the superheros Slam and Jam, and a black-leather punker. Dirk’s grandfather, Derwood, an entomologist, makes collages. As a boy, Derwood loved the little fairies he saw in the meadows where studied bugs. He falls in love with Fifi, Dirk’s grandmother, who reminds him of a tiny human fairy, though she sees herself as a cricket. Together, Derwood and Fifi are each given a chance they thought they didn’t have, the chance to bloom in a life of love; and Block uses butterflies as a symbol for this love. But Derwood has a heart condition that he knows will end his life while he is still a young man. When he finds butterflies to study, he releases the living ones, but he keeps the ones he finds that have died and uses them to makes collages of beauty in death for Fifi to hang on the walls of her cottage after he is gone.
When Weetzie inherits the cottage from Fifi, she continues to decorate it with collage. She covers pillows and lampshades with rose petals, glitter, stars, lace, feathers, and miniature plastic babies. (Block uses lists as a form of collage too; she lists objects, scents, foods, names.) Weetzie dresses herself in collage creations: she favors an Indian headdress and moccasins with the jeans and dresses she decorates with fringe and glitter. For Secret Agent’s movie, she dresses her babies in collage. Blond Cherokee wears fringe and feathers, and dark tangled Witch Baby gauze and tulle. When the "almost sisters" get older and share a room, Cherokee’s side of the room is decorated in Weetzie fashion, for like Weetzie, Cherokee tends to see what is colorful, pretty, light and happy in the world — that which pleases. Witch Baby’s wall, on the other hand, is decorated with her "pain game," a gray collage of newspaper clippings about disasters and tragedy and sorrow, for Witch Baby cannot help but see the dark side of life. The characters’ journeys will involve understanding and accepting the good and bad, the light and dark in each of their perceptions of the world.
One of my favorite collages in the books is the collage of family. Block creates a family in the best sense — a collection of people who love each other. And at a time when the nuclear family doesn’t exist or work for most people, it is good to see this group. By the beginning of Weetzie Bat, Dirk and Weetzie are best friends. Weetzie is the only child of divorced parents, and Dirk has been living with his Grandma Fifi since the death of his parents when he was a young boy. Grandma Fifi thinks of Weetzie as her granddaughter; so when Fifi dies, she leaves her house to Dirk and Weetzie. Dirk finds his love, Duck. Duck is estranged from his biological family, the Drakes: his mother Darlene and his siblings Peace, Granola, Crystal, Chi, Aura, Tahiti, Yin, and Yang — whose names are a collage of the things his parents were ‘into’ at the time each child was born. Weetzie finds her love, My Secret Agent Lover Man, and he joins the family too. We never see the couples marry, but they are married and a family in spirit and in love.
Cherokee, Weetzie’s daughter, has three fathers: Dirk, Duck, and Secret. When My Secret Agent Lover Man was afraid to have a child, Weetzie slept with Dirk and Duck, who also wanted a child but didn’t think it was possible for them. No one knows who Cherokee’s biological father is, and each of the men treats her as his daughter. Cherokee also has a spiritual father, the family’s friend, Coyote Dream Song. Like Cherokee, Coyote feels the Native American Indian’s intimate connection to nature.
Witch Baby is My Secret Agent Lover Man’s daughter, whom he fathered while under the spell of Vixanne Wigg. Witch Baby is an unwanted baby. When Vixanne finds out that she is pregnant, she asks My Secret Agent Lover Man for money for an abortion, which he gives her. Although Vixanne doesn’t go through with the abortion, she still doesn’t want her child. In a fairy tale manner, Vixanne leaves Witch Baby in a basket on the doorstep of the cottage where Weetzie, My Secret Agent Lover Man, Dirk, Duck, and Cherokee live. My Secret Agent Lover Man wants to take Witch Baby back to Vixanne; but Weetzie, collage family artist, talks everyone into keeping Witch Baby (to whom she gives the lovely name Lily, though the name doesn’t stick). Thus, Weetzie becomes one of Witch Baby’s two moms, and Cherokee becomes Witch Baby’s "almost-sister." At the end of Witch Baby, one of the stories of Witch Baby’s struggle for self discovery, Witch Baby names herself "Witch Baby Secret Agent Black Lamb Wig Bat," a name-collage of the people of whom she feels she is made. (Not until later, in In Missing Angel Juan, does she begin to recognize the part of her that is called Lily.) Witch Baby has a spirit(ual) grandfather too. When she goes to New York in search of her boyfriend, Angel Juan, Witch Baby meets the ghost of Weetzie’s father, Charlie Bat, who committed suicide, and who, like Witch Baby, struggles with the pain and darkness in life. Charlie Bat acts as her guardian angel.
Other members of the extended collage family include Weetzie’s mother, Brandy Lynx, who does her nails and hair, works on her tan, and drinks to cover her pain; the family comprised of Ping Chong, a Chinese woman, and her husband Valentine Jah-Love, a Rastafarian man, and their son Raphael, whose skin is the color of cocoa; and the family of Gabriel and Marque Pere, who are illegal immigrants from Mexico, and their children Angel Juan, Angel Mogul, Angel Padre, Angelica and Serifina — a collage of angels. The extended family of Weetzie Bat is "multi-cultural" in the best sense. They are not a melting pot, in which everything is thrown together, melds, and comes out uniform. Rather, they are a collage, of differences and similarities all of which are celebrated.
Francesca Lia Block creates a collage of real-world and fairytale elements too. Although there are genies who grant wishes, dogs and cats who are healers, visits from dead relatives who tell their stories, and a collection of lamps with various magic attributes, although there are wings and horns with magic powers, witches with sugar drugs, a vampire-like creature that turns beautiful children into bloodless mannequins, and guardian angels and statues that speak wisdom, Block not only tempers the fairytales with the real world but also shows real-world magic as well. And, as she shows us fairytale elements and creatures in the real world, she also shows us how the real-world creates the fairytale. In Missing Angel Juan we learn that we are our own genies, and we make our own wishes come true. We have our own magic powers. And the evil creatures in the world are our own dark sides. And in Baby Be-Bop we learn that each person’s life is a tale — that who we are is a collage of our personal tale, the tales of our biological ancestors, and the tale of the human race. Our human-ness, the life-force, if you will, becomes the ability to recognize the fairytale in our own story and to choose to tell our tale, both by living it and by sharing it.
In Weetzie Bat Weetzie is offered three wishes by a Genie in a magic lamp. At the end of the story, her wishes have come true, but she has also had to face marital problems and death. Dirk has just returned from a journey to find Duck, who ran away from everyone he loves when, learning that a friend has AIDS, he was confronted by the reality that sometimes love can kill. But Dirk found Duck and brought him home. And now Weetzie looks around the table at her collage family, happily united. "I don’t know about happily ever after, but I know about happily, Weetzie Bat thought," is the last line of the book. And in this line are both the joy and the compromise of the fairytale that is real life.
Block is true to her belief in the ephemeral, which doesn’t make the present moment any less important or significant. At the end of Witch Baby, we witness another happy celebration, another return from a journey. This time, the family is celebrating Witch Baby, who ran away to find out who she is. As each member of the family tells Witch Baby of her importance to them, they create a collage of what she has given them; and Witch Baby at last feels that she belongs: that she is a part of the family and that she is part of the collage of pain and joy that makes up the world. It is a triumphant moment for the family and for Witch Baby in her struggle. Yet, in spite of all she has learned, at the beginning of the next book, Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, we find Witch Baby hiding in the shed in the mud. Similarly, at the end of Baby Be-Bop, Dirk finds peace and chooses to live when he realizes that he is accepted for who he is, but, at the beginning of Weetzie Bat, he and Weetzie are driving around, filled with longing, searching for their loves. There is no happily ever after, there is only happily. And this is perhaps one of the things I most value in all the books. The life Block presents is a complex composition of the wonder and magic and dark sides of fairytales as well as the wonder and magic and dark sides of life.
The meanings of collage elements and the uses of collage evolve through the books, and this is typical of Block’s work, for she loves to explore an idea or symbol, taking it to its extremes and putting it in different contexts in order to express the complexity of life. For example, Baby Be-Bop begins with young Dirk’s dream of a comforting collage of men’s body parts in a steamy shower on a moving train. The body collage reappears as a confusion of sweaty limbs in the almost-safe pain-game of slam dancing and as a tumult of truly violent bodies, when a gang of skin heads beats Dirk until he is wet with blood and his body and spirit are literally broken. As he loses consciousness and hope, the train carrying the fathers also reappears; but this time, it is a Nazi death train, with gas coming from the pipes instead of water. And at the end of the book, when Dirk hangs between life and death, he himself becomes the train speeding through a dark tunnel toward a bright, comforting light. The collage that begins Weetzie Bat is a collection of all the cool pieces of Los Angeles that bring Weetzie joy but that most of the people around her don’t recognize. This same collage, a crazy mix of tourist oddities and cheap food, becomes, for Weetzie’s father, a symbol of the facade of false happiness that covers the real darkness in the world. For Charlie Bat, the collage brings unbearable pain.
In Witch Baby, the child who doesn’t fit — who covers her walls with pain, who watches from outside the collage of happy family, feeling she is not a piece (and therefore is not at peace) — is the one who eventually brings the pieces of the family closer together. Witch Baby is a collage maker who does not know how to put herself in the collage. Witch Baby unites Duck with his mother and family, when they finally know and accept him as gay. She puts together a metaphor for My Secret Agent Lover Man to use in his next movie. She connects Weetzie with her fear of confronting the dark side of life, which brings Weetzie and Witch Baby together in a closer relationship. In spite of her own feelings for Raphael, Witch Baby’s music becomes the catalyst connecting Cherokee and Raphael. She helps Coyote Dream Song become closer to the real people around him by making him confront his values. Her pain and insistence finally connect her to her real mother and father and lead her to an understanding of her need and love for Weetzie. The collection of painful photos that Witch Baby leaves on her mother Vixanne’s bed eventually help Vixanne connect to a healthier part of herself, a part that deals with pain by turning it into art rather than by hiding from it. Witch Baby, often unwittingly, becomes the artist and glue, and she unites the family at the cottage by creating a collage of photos of them on their clock.
In Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, the band wears a collage of powerful animal parts, which becomes a symbol of the unhealthy and dangerous aspects of the natural animal power of youth, beauty, sex, and desire. Here, the pieces are not brought together in a whole and good way. They remain perversions somehow: dismembered pieces of animals that take over the wearer. Cherokee creates a collage of feathers that are a pair of wings for Witch Baby and sews the fur of many goats onto a pair of pants for Raphael. Angel Juan wears a pair of horns, and Cherokee a pair of boots like hooves. When Cherokee wears all the animal parts at the end of the book, we fear for her life; and we see that, although she began by invoking the animals’ power with the best of intentions for herself and her friends, they have lost themselves in the power of unhealthy excess. They save themselves, however, and burning the animal parts in a healing ceremony gives them back some of the simplicity and innocence of their former lives.
In Missing Angel Juan, Block takes the idea of collage as bits of broken things and suggests that some things aren’t meant to be broken. When Angel Juan leaves Witch Baby, her heart feels like a broken teacup. As a vessel, it is useless. She tears up all her photos of Angel Juan, creating a mess of paper body parts on the floor. At Charlie Bat’s apartment, Witch Baby shatters the broken mirror she has found in the street, but the pieces reflect many Witch Babys. It is not until she glues the pieces together on the wall at Charlie Bat’s suggestion, that she creates the broken-but-whole collage of Witch Baby that looks the way she feels. This story is full of dismembered body parts and parts of self, full of symbolic and artistic ways of possessing a person or parts of a person. Some are healthy and others not, for again, Block doesn’t rely on easy metaphor or symbol.
At the end of the book, when Witch Baby has learned that she needs to let go of Angel Juan, she receives two important collage gifts in the mail, one from each of her mothers. The gifts are healthy artistic ways to hold on to people and to look at parts of a self, but mostly they are meant to express love. Weetzie sends Witch Baby a collage in which, along with the Weetzie stars and flowers, she has combined pictures of Witch Baby’s family. At the center, there are photo cut-outs (not tear-ups) of Witch Baby and Charlie Bat that are combined so that Witch Baby and her spiritual father appear to be holding hands. The collage represents the past coming together with the present: the joy and love with which Witch Baby and Charlie Bat are surrounded; Weetzie’s finally being able to let Charlie go; a healthy, artistic way to contain people and express love of them (although Weetzie does not hold on to the collage, she gives it away); and Witch Baby’s connection to her family, especially to Charlie Bat, who, although not a biological relation, is her metaphorical relation in the sense that he is a soulmate.
Vixanne sends Witch Baby a collage-type painting of Witch Baby as a beautiful jungle girl surrounded by symbolic animals that represent parts of Witch Baby’s self and her growth. On one shoulder sits a white monkey that reminds Witch Baby of Cake, the part of her that fears aloneness and would possess others. On her other shoulder sits a black cat that reminds her of Charlie Bat, the part of her that is creative and that can both love and let go. On her head is a swarm of blooming butterflies, which represent Witch Baby’s blossoming and rebirth. The painting is in the style of those that Vixanne now paints of herself, and the gift is the first time that Vixanne has reached out to her daughter. The gift is an expression of love, understanding, and connection. Both the collage from Weetzie and the collage-like painting from Vixanne are gifts of connection. The two pieces connect Witch Baby to the good parts of herself that come from each of her mothers. Balance is an important concept in any work of art; and, holding the two gifts, Witch Baby has finally found a kind of balance, the place she belongs, between her two, very different moms.
Perhaps, one way to think about all five of the "Weetzie Bat" books is as a collage of stories. I picture Block starting with the Weetzie story piece, then assembling the fragments of the other characters’ stories, until she builds a world of story connections. It is not surprising that, with Baby Be-Bop, rather than continue writing "what happened next," as in a series, she decided to build her collage in a different direction. It is as if, after writing Missing Angel Juan, Block looked at her four-book story-collage and noticed the Dirk-story pieces, down there in the left-hand corner waiting to be built out, asking for additions. And so, she added the Baby Be-Bop stories, that brought Dirk and his mohawk, Fifi and her butterfly collages to where we met them on the pages of Weetzie Bat. Now, we wait to see which part of the collage creation will grow, what new connections will be made, when Block writes us a sixth piece.
"For what age do you think these books are appropriate?" asks our professor. "Thirty two," I whisper to my friend who sits next to me. "Twenty five," she scribbles back on my notebook. We think of these books as "a find," and imagine a time when we will be in a position to pass them on to just-the-right kids. For now though, we’ll share them with our friends.
Block, Francesca Lia. Weetzie Bat. Harper Trophy, 1989.
_____. Witch Baby. Harper Trophy, 1991.
_____. Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys. Harper Trophy, 1992.
_____. Missing Angel Juan. Harper Collins, 1993.
_____. Baby Be-Bop. Joanna Cotler Books, 1995.
Editors’ Note: Since this article was written, Block has added to her collage. One of the short stories in Girl Goddess #9 concerns the lesbian couple and child that Witch Baby notices when she goes to New York in Missing Angel Juan.
Rebecca Platzner is a Children’s Librarian at the Allwood Branch of the Clifton Public Library in New Jersey.
Copyright 1998. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Platzner, Rebecca. (1998). "Collage in Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat Books." The ALAN Review, Volume 25, Number 2, 23-26.