In the early ‘90s a small independent underground comic by Diane DiMassa featuring a rumpled, wild-eyed, overcaffeinated “homicidal lesbian terrorist” was frequently listed among Riot Grrrl and Queercore zines of the day. The main character, Hothead Paisan, spent a lot of time pissed off at the world, nursing crushes on Madonna and Joan Jett, or looking for love, once finding it in a shaggy-haired character named Daphne whose gender was never specified. The humor was dark and sometimes vicious, but there were also glimmers of a sweet vulnerability in the characters. Giant Ass Publishing’s Stacy Sheehan would send small gifts with the comic to young riot grrrls, including pins/badges and dog tags with messages like “Dyke Warrior” and “No Guilt.”
DiMassa developed the comic while journaling during her early days of sobriety and recovery. She also illustrated writer Kathy Acker’s chapbook Pussycat Fever. In some moments, Hothead Paisan was the kind of character you wanted to read when it felt like having to deal with one more stupid person would be enough to push you to consider vigilante behavior. At other times, when the injustice and prevailing unkindness of the world became overwhelming, Hothead’s depression won out and she would retreat into herself, emerging from the darkness only to interact with her Higher Power (which was a shadeless lamp she named Donna Summer) or her blind, sensible, serene, hippie friend Roz, who would offer her herbal tea and talk her down from the ledge. Then there was the hilarious afterthought known as the Menstruation Museum, complete with Big Ass Mattresses (do you put the emphasis on “big-ass” or “ass-mattress”?).
The comic was never going to fly under the political or sociological radar for long, even before people became twitchy over the use of the word “terrorist.” For one thing, her cat, Chicken, wore a fez, which was just one thing that pissed some people off. There was a backlash from the trans community because of DiMassa’s trans-critical opinions. Then there was all the hyperbolic anger toward men and “spritz-head” women and the violent, ax-wielding, gun-toting revenge Hothead fantasized about, the sort of thing anti-feminists suspect is a not-so-secret man-hating blueprint for daily action, not catharsis in the form of a fictional comic book character. Revenge fantasies in feminist work, going so far as armed revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s, were nothing new. Would there have been more of an outcry against the anger and violence if the genders had been reversed? You bet.
Citing Hothead Paisan with Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M. Manifesto, the Radicalesbians’ “Woman-identified Woman,” and Monique Wittig’s novel Les Guérillères, Sara Warner, author of Acts of Gaiety: LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure, wrote:
These lesbian revenge fantasies are deadly serious satires featuring vigilante feminist heroines, graphic scenes of retaliation and retribution, cunning linguistic puns, and black humor. Lesbian comedies of terrors exploit for humorous effect the compulsory rites and rituals of heteronormativity. Their plots revolve around the frustrations and unrepressed rage of the disenfranchised and dispossessed. Episodic in nature, they depict highly theatrical spectacles, dark play, blood sports, and war games.
Their humor stems from the protagonist’s skillful manipulation of ludicrous situations and her virtuosic display of anarchic wit.
There has been one performance of the musical adaptation of Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, staged at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 2004, with music and lyrics by Animal Prufrock of the punk band Bitch and Animal. Animal had discovered the comic in a bookstore while she was a frustrated theater student in Chicago. She told Sara Warner, “I SAW ME. I immediately said, ‘I’m gonna make a fucking musical out of this.’”
The cast featured cult singer-songwriter and Righteous Babe Records founder Ani DiFranco, wellness activist Susan “Stop the Insanity!” Powter, Toshi Reagon from Sweet Honey in the Rock and BIGLovely, and Alyson Palmer of BETTY RULES! and The L Word. To many attendees, who had been buying the comic by mail order or at the shrinking number of feminist bookstores in the country, the Hothead musical was the highlight of Michfest. Animal intended to take the musical all the way to New York but immediately encountered roadblocks. A project about a lesbian terrorist is not easy to fund, even if the country isn’t at war against terrorism. Rumors occasionally surface of a new production with the likes of Joan Jett involved (may I suggest Brody Dalle?), but they disappointingly remain rumors.
After over twenty years Hothead isn’t as well known as one would expect, still a fringe character, unlike the sexier Tank Girl, who at least got her own movie and decent soundtrack. DiMassa and Hothead were the subject of Heather Pearl’s independent film The Village Idiot, which included songs by L7 and Joan Jett, that was screened at the Pittsburgh International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in 1993. “Gayploitation” fimmaker Lola Rocknrolla is still looking for investors to fund her live-action Hothead film.
LGBT Authors Gather in Boston, 1993, with a brief chat with Diane DiMassa at 1:37: