Friday, January 18, 2013

On Parenting: Weinstein, Ayuyang and Hart

As the parent of a toddler, I've taken an increasing interest in comics regarding parenthood, which in itself is a relatively new phenomenon in alt-comics. Carol Tyler and Joe Chiappetta were two of the first to do so, but there are quite a few more cartoonists close to my age who are exploring the full range of emotions regarding parenthood: joy, grief, terror, frustration, etc.

Lauren Weinstein's "If This Is All You Get" is a four-page minicomic drawn from the upcoming anthology, The Big Feminist But. It's a hilarious take on the ways in which she internalized her mother's own urge to be perfect and save the world, mixed with the push-and-pull of her youthful pledge to avoid motherhood in favor of being a "real" artist and the realities that a loving relationship offer later in life. Weinstein confronts head-on the anxiety that women who have children often express about having children: the possibility that they may never be able to create again, especially during the demanding early years of motherhood. This comic is both an attempt to grapple with these issues and the product of that very struggle with the creative process and the guilt felt for carving out time to create. Weinstein amusingly gets at that feeling as she hears her daughter say "I love you, babysitter" as she walks away to her studio. At the same time, I admire and identify with her total sincerity in the statement "The baby is the product of your undying faith and hope that your husband and you have in each other." It gets at the way that having a child is a gift.

Rina Ayuyang's comic Outta This Comes The Crazy is a sketchbook diary surrounding her pregnancy and the next few months after the birth of her son. Ayuyang, like Weinstein, is a witty and upbeat artist who chooses to draw in a style that's a series of quick, simple smudges and lines that retain the spontaneity and vitality of the moment. Ayuyang's comics mix excitement and anxiety as she details trying to finish her first book before she gives birth; that metaphor of twin births quickly gives way when the real birth happens. There's an amazing page where Ayuyang captures the push-and-pull of emotions with great precision: sadness that her husband will have to go back to work soon after the baby was born, despair over ever getting her life back, confusion over whether the feeling that "this kid is kicking my ass" is due to hormones or "because I'm not cut out for this?" There's a scene where she's in bed trying to catch up on some much-needed sleep but worries that her baby's been asleep for five hours. She fears the worst until she hears her baby pass gas--a fitting gag to defuse that horrid feeling. The book ends on a note of uncertainty, the final page a drawing of three blank-faced individuals, with Ayuyang saying "Now what?"

That sense of uncertainty and occasional terror is encapsulated perfectly in Tom Hart's fantasy tale Daddy Lightning (Retrofit Comics). It's about a father traveling with his baby in a forest with limited resources. Hart gets at the mania one feels when trying to soothe a crying baby while trying to answer one's own biological needs, that visceral sense of permanent emergency that accompanies having a baby. The setting of the story places the real basics of childcare into sharp relief, as he has a limited supply of milk, diapers and money as the titular character is trying to create a new life for himself and his baby. As the main character picks up new skills like swaddling (an absolutely crucial technique that was utterly mysterious to me as someone who had no prior experience with children), he's faced with obstacles like trying to think of inspiring fathers in literature and history (Chronos? Oedipus? Abraham?), hiccups, making money to buy food and milk, winning a contest, facing off against a warrior trying to get his shopping cart and desperately trying to get a waffle.

This rollicking, scatological story has the cadence of a folk tale, one that belied the grim reality of Hart's actual daughter dying at the age of two. He had written but not drawn the story before her death, and the comic became a sort of invocation for her return, a way to make her come to life on the page. The comic is beautiful and funny because that's how Hart thought of his daughter. The sense of presentness in this comic is remarkable. It's a story that's about nothing but the present moment, and Hart never deviates from being in the moment of the rush of exciting terror that is fatherhood. My wife was hospitalized a few days after our daughter came back from the hospital and I was forced to fly solo with a preemie for several days. I didn't allow myself to feel terror in that moment because I knew I couldn't afford to feel it, and I instead just focused on the next task: feed, change, burp, sleep, repeat. In reading Hart's comic, that sense of terror came flooding out for the first time as I felt so closely connected to Daddy Lightning, and doubly so for knowing just what's at stake. I'm in awe of Hart's willingness to grapple with that grief and share it so publicly.

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