Illustrator Kevin Sabo is a self-confessed “fanatic” for gay pop culture. “I know way too much about the shit that doesn’t make me any smarter,” he says, “but I’m so addicted to it anyway. I believe there is a purpose in my addiction.” With his new series, Choose Your Fighter, currently on display at the Well Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, Kevin invokes a host of visual and conceptual femme-pop references to combat the typically overtly masculine overtones of gaming culture. In Kevin’s words: “You’ll find fashion inspiration from Lil Kim or the Spice Girls. You’ll find colours and fonts that are inspired by movies like Kill Bill. Janet Jackson’s ‘Velvet Rope’ era definitely infiltrates my style – that album contains so much raw vulnerability mixed with sex mixed with truth mixed with anger mixed with a persistence to find peace.”
As Kevin tells it: “Choose Your Fighter came about originally from me wanting to explore more about character and fashion. Some of my other work felt a little anonymous at times, almost like the figures were all the same unmarked person. As I began working, I realised that these characters I was making had such big personalities. It reminded me of playing video games as a kid – I ALWAYS wanted to play as the most feminine or queer character, because in a lot of video games, the choices are essentially all super masculine, male-dominant choices.”
Kevin describes his style as “awkward and clumsy and sexy and flirty and playful and dark and happy all at the same time.” Rendered in fantastically variegated textures in India ink, water, house paint and oil stick, Choose Your Fighter represents the diametric opposite of homogenous, heteronormative visual and sexual identity and prescribed modes of being and dressing. The broad-shouldered butch-femme, “Doodlebutch”, poses in a sheer pink slip with candy-floss hair to match her poodle’s fur; the three-breasted “Mama Trois” shows off her contortionist skills and phallic third leg in a tight animal-print dress; the heavily muscled “Shreddella” flexes her blue limbs in a tiny bikini; the lizard-walking “Sir Lizardo” squats in spiked fetish boots, choker and PVC peaked hat.
Speaking of one of his personal favourites – the crotchless leotard-sporting “Nastina” – Kevin says: “She reminds me of Nina Williams from the Japanese fighting game Tekken. She has a lot of power, but a lot of vulnerability. I relate to Nastina. I have the gift (or curse) of being a very sexual person, and she reminds me of the sex appeal we might sometimes strive too hard to attain. I added some almost phallic worms that are squirming all around her. It’s such a twisted painting – it makes me feel a LOT of things. Is she screaming in rage or in orgasm?? (or both?) “Boytini” is definitely a fave as well. His body is so fluid, but his setting is so tight and graphic. He reminds me of a lazy stripper – like, he knows his natural beauty will get him far but he could be doing a lot more.”
There is also a deeply personal element to Kevin’s works. He remembers: “When I was like six years old, playing make-believe in the pool with my friends, I always wanted to pretend I was a mermaid, even when most of my friends wanted to be a whale or like… a navy marine. I experienced a lot of shame in wanting to embody something hyper-feminine.” Choose Your Fighter is a channel for working through that shame and turning it into celebration and affirmation (and there is even a mermaid character – “Sandra Seascum”). Fluid in every sense of the word, the fighters, in their various attitudes of bending, twisting, flexing, performing, strutting and voguing, are figures for unabashed creative expression and gender expression. Kevin tells us: “Each character I’ve made in Choose Your Fighter is a good representation of the fantasies I’ve carried with me into adulthood. You won’t see any characters that are super masc – it’s a pool of choices that cater to queer and gay culture, which I feel I’ve been able to embrace without shame as an adult.”
Choose Your Fighter is, Kevin says, “definitely my favourite series I’ve worked on”. Each large-scale character card is stamped with the number 19 in reference to the year they were made – a mark of Kevin’s intention to continue the series across years to come. He states: “I’m so excited for the stamp to change to 20, 21, 22 and so on – it’s becoming a project I’m committed to evolving while still honouring the original purpose, which is ultimately to create an ongoing collector’s edition of original characters. One day, I want to fill up every square inch of a warehouse with them.”
Summing up the series with recourse to his pop culture fanaticism, Kevin says: “If you know me, you know that Britney Spears is a huge inspiration for me. Her story is unlike anybody else’s. When I was a teen, I was really affected by the way I saw American people react to her personal struggles. I think it opened my eyes to how we treat people who are supposed to fit into pretty packages, and the consequences when that bubble pops. I think what I noticed growing up was how over-sexualised everything was in pop… and then watching that get really ugly. The characters in Choose Your Fighter all pack that punch of pretty-sexy-ugly. And ultimately, acceptance.”