Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Writing, Mothering and Looking Back: Sarah Laing's Let Me Be Frank

As I've written before, Sarah Laing's first issue of Let Me Be Frank reminded me a great deal of Keiler Roberts' comics about motherhood and creativity.Issues three, four and five each have their own autobiographical themes. The third issue is "Writing", and it's about Laing's experience as an cartoonist, a novelist and an exhibiting artist. There's the requisite strip about attending a zinefest that has an added humorous element because she's worried that her young son will outsell her with his own comics once again. Amusingly, her earnings immediately translated into new sneakers. There's a long, funny story about going to a writer's retreat with a friend that turns into a disaster of getting sick and not getting much work done. My favorite strips in the issue included one where dissatisfaction in her own work transforms into a monster taunting her, and another where she decides to revise her novel, which has become a feral creature living in her closet. While Laing mostly uses a simple line meant to convey information clearly above all else (the way she draws eyebrows as a quick means of portraying emotions is an especially effective technique), this doesn't limit her visual imagination one bit. The "dissatisfaction monster" is cleverly designed, and it spews forth the kind of self-abuse that every creative person feels. The "feral novel" is an especially amusing metaphor, as she must teach it how to drink tea and help it withstand bright light.

The fourth issue, "Celebrity", is all about fame, image and self-image. Balancing her own feminist ideals with the pressures society puts on women to look a certain way. Amusingly, the strip is kicked off with a discussion of Brazilian waxes, with Laing chuckling to herself that she's a slattern (a dirty, untidy woman). There are strips about seeing bands, with the color strips about Flight of the Conchords and Morrissey being the best. There's a follow-up to the Morrissey strip where she realizes that she's on the same plane as the musician, and her inner fangirl gets the best of her as she tries to screw up the courage to meet him but is rebuffed by his handler. Laing's work pops off the page in her color strips, giving a bit more form and weight to her sketchy line. That said, the immediacy one feels when reading one of her especially heart-felt strips is palpable, as it feels like the images on the page have been ripped directly from her imagination and scrawled on the page. Throughout this issue, Laing reveals how fascinated she is by celebrity, how much seeing live performances means to her even though she feels increasingly out of place, and the happy but somewhat wistfulness-inducing nature of her current life as a writer and artist.

The fifth issue is called "When I Was", and these are all stories from Laing's childhood and youth. This was the most cohesive issue of the issues, in part because of Laing's use of color throughout the comic. "On The Radio" is especially revealing, as it traces her musical tastes from her youth to college. Growing up in New Zealand, with a limited number of radio stations, had a profound impact on her tastes (she thought she was more up to date than her friends because she listened to Anne Murray). As she gained new friends who helped expand her tastes, so too did she find herself growing up and being exposed to cultures and ideas that she wasn't aware of growing up in a small, suburban area. The story ends with the conclusion of her first graveyard shift as a college DJ. There's also a story about a children's book about having time stolen that resonated with her as an adult, a strip about making her own clothes and growing up with a mother who made all of her clothes, and a story about possums showing up at odd intervals in her life.

One of the reasons these comics are so effective is that Laing has enough perspective on these events to add a layer of humor, warmth and most importantly, honesty. When a young person writes about the bands they see, it tends to have a quality that's partly immersive but also partly absurd, because there's little else in the world that is as important as this to them. Same goes for romance, travel, friendships, etc. Laing's experiences as a creative person, a mother and citizen of the world gives her work a resonance and solidity sometimes lacking in the work of younger cartoonists. She's able to home in on key, formative memories and shape them to form a cohesive narrative, instead of just flailing around while wondering what it all means. While often self-deprecating and sometimes wistful (the strips where she admits being jealous of the success of others is especially sharp and honest), one gets the sense that Laing is pretty comfortable in her own skin, or at least comfortable battling her own particular set of demons.

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