Monday, July 27, 2015

Creativity, Motherhood And Self-Care: Miseryland

Miseryland is Keiler Roberts' second collection of her autobiographical strips from her minicomics series Powdered Milk. Please see links here and here for my reviews of what makes up the first fifty or so pages of the book. Much of the material in the latter half of the book focuses on Roberts' social anxiety. Like in much of her other comics, there's an obvious reluctance to focus on her mental health issues, and the reason she gives is that she's not sure anyone wants to read about that sort of thing. It's as though she's intensely worried that people will find her memoir work to be particularly narcissistic if she focuses on these issues. However, she can't help but crack every now and then on the page and let those issues sort of leak into the narrative, and her comics are all the better for this.

While the rest of the book is jam-packed with funny observations about her toddler daughter Xia and the various wacky things that she says, Miseryland is really about the reality of parenting on a day-to-day and minute-by-minute basis. It's a particular responsibility that is unyielding in terms of its demands and burdens, and for someone struggling with mental health issues it can feel especially onerous. It's also a book about negotiating the world and the people in it, while struggling with crippling self-doubt, in an effort to be creative and maintain a respected professional career. Even those strips are laced with acidic humor that's frequently equal parts self-deprecating and viciously hostile. Take the strip about Roberts encountering a woman at a subway stop. She thinks that the woman is wearing an ugly shirt, and then the woman comes up to hear and compliments Roberts on her sweater. The rest of the strip consists of Roberts' awkwardness, as she gives a response that she thinks is dumb and is worried that she'll have to sit next to her the rest of the way. However, the woman "reads her mind" and lets her off the hook in a warm, friendly fashion. It seems like the woman didn't so much read her mind so much as she read Roberts' body language.

Every time that Miseryland feels like it's going to zero in on such feelings, Roberts turns to gags from her everyday life. I especially like the way she depicts her husband Scott, like when she asks him to look at some sores in her nose and he says "God no! That's the last thing I would do. I will never look at them." Of course, the real star is Xia, who's at the age where the seriousness of play becomes profoundly important, scolding her mother to not say sorry with a laugh to one of her dolls. While children can be draining to take care of, Roberts shows how they can also provide enormous solace. On one page, a clearly deflated Roberts is cheered up by her husband reminding her that her daughter said "assplesauce" that day.

One gets the sense that by the end of this volume, Roberts is an artist whom, despite her social anxiety, draws the bulk of her inspiration from her interactions with others. This makes her work noticeably different from many autobio comics that tend to be mostly internalized monologues, but also points to the fact that she is actively seeking out this sort of interaction. Whether its commiserating with a friend that they are both the "world's worst mothers", having heart-to-hearts with her charming mother, venting to her husband or getting endless amounts of entertainment from her daughter, Roberts faces her emotions while being fully present with others. The result is a richly textured, complex and authentic account of one person's life. That authenticity is deeply felt in the way she depicts the variety of experiences in as honest a manner as possible, whether it be sadness, joy, outrage, or anxiety. There's a marvelous immediacy in the way she draws her comics, ripping the images from her memory and onto the page with a minimum of fussiness and a maximum of emotional expressiveness.

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