Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Life and Death: Keiler Roberts and Jason Walz

Powdered Milk, by Keiler Roberts. The thing that sets apart Keiler Roberts' autobio comics from others is the resonance of her authorial voice. She's got this direct, firm, dry but funny and slightly detached way of looking at the world and herself. The early strips in this collection of minicomics are a bit more free-flowing regarding her family history, journeys through time to meet her younger self, etc, but things really get cooking when she announces that she's pregnant. Roberts eventually reveals in a fairly nonchalant manner that she had previously had a miscarriage, an event that induces a lot of anxiety that carries through her pregnancy and into her first year of motherhood. Indeed, this comic is a fascinating account of managing post-partum depression along with a curious kind of neurological disconnection, like her peripheral vision creating weird illusions and forgetting the names of everyday objects. Through it all, Roberts maintains a wicked and even occasionally abrasive sense of humor, like in a strip that's supposedly about her being wrong but is later revealed to be partially fictitious on her part (the fictitious part being that she was sorry!).

Seeing someone as witty and vital as she is absolutely fall apart is jarring, like when her mother asks her why she's crying and she says "I have no idea. It's what I do." Her anxiety prevents her from sleeping, which only ramps up anxiety and depression even more. What's interesting is the dispassionate way she records all of this information, almost as if it was happening to someone else. Eventually, partly through the intervention of therapy & medicine and partly through the passage of time, she snaps out of it. While the book never got heavy or maudlin while she was discussing her illness (Roberts has the instincts of a gagsmith and kept that up throughout), there's a noticeable lightness in her work after her daughter turned one and eventually started to talk. Kids are an endless font of random, funny nonsense and Roberts adapted only the best material for this section. I admire Roberts' low-fi, simple pencil drawings. Everything about her work eschews fussiness and frills, leaving only the meat of her sharp observations about herself and others, observations that spare no one while still softening a little of the impact with affection and humor.

Homesick, by Jason Walz. On paper, Homesick should have been the sort of book I dislike. Cancer comics in general can be a cheap way to create drama on the page while deifying flawed human beings who happen to suffer from a disease. While there have been some excellent comics that dealt with cancer (like Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner), most tend to gloss over the very real emotional and personal collateral damage that the disease can create. Thankfully, Walz goes in a different direction here, using three separate devices to tell his story. First, there's the dream/metaphor of a cosmonaut dying in space, trying to get in contact with someone back on earth. That thought is put into Walz' head by one of his students, who told them about some mysterious signals in space that some thought might have been a failed Soviet manned space mission. Second is the straightforward account of his mother's latest bout with cancer coming at a time when Walz should have been at his happiest, thanks to getting engaged. Her eventual deterioration and the way the family came together were all pretty standard fare for this kind of story, but understandably necessary. The details of her struggle were actually underplayed with due restraint, if anything.

The third storytelling arm was the most interesting to me. Walz reveals his sickly childhood, having suffered from epileptic seizures that especially manifested if he came into any rough contact to his head. His mother protected him in such a manner that left him not only forever grateful and close to her, but in some ways left him very much a child. I found this to be a refreshingly honest and open take on why we are sometimes so reluctant to let loved ones go: because we need them and don't know what we'd do without them. The cosmonaut metaphor was Walz's way of mediating this intense fear and disconnect, allowing him to find a way to let go and thus become an adult. The story of his mother and the story of the cosmonaut are both narratives about an inevitable fate and how it can be navigated. Walz doesn't make his mother out to be a hero, saint or noble figure because of her disease; she's simply a very good mother who never stopped being a good mother, even when he didn't need her in the same way. Walz's book acknowledges this and his cosmonaut device allows him to acknowledge his own fears without seeming maudlin or selfish. His art is very self-assured, with pull-quote contributor Jeff Lemire an obvious influence. Walz's uses of slightly cartoony and distorted figures, along with blank eyes, gives his work an extra layer of distance from the intensity and desperation of the emotions felt, which worked perfectly for this story. On the other side of things, Walz connects with the reader by showing them how he became engaged to his future wife in a wordless sequence and what life is like as someone who teaches kids on the autism spectrum. Both sequences serve the narrative in specific ways, but the way he drew them out also gave us a sense of who he is now as a person, in contrast to his childhood flashbacks. In terms of narrative structure, thematic structure and emotional structure, this is a strong, effective and touching book and a solid debut.

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