Tag Archives: comics

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

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Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

cover chastRoz Chast’s graphic novel Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, 2014) examines the dying process (my choice of words, not the author’s) of Chast’s extremely old parents, George and Elizabeth. George and Elizabeth were born a few days apart in 1912 and only a few blocks apart in Harlem.

Their parents were Russian immigrants who came to the U.S. with nothing but misery. George and Elizabeth’s first baby dies shortly after birth. Roz Chast is an only child born to a mother and father who were 42 (somewhat odd today, practically scandalous at the time). The author knows all the stories of the miserable Russian immigrants and the dead baby. She knows her parents consider themselves soul mates who cannot be apart. soul matesHowever, as George and Elizabeth creep into their 90s, Chast must consider their imminent deaths and what to do with their possessions and remains. However, George and Elizabeth will not talk about death!

The guilt and anxiety that fill Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? jumps off the pages. Based on her grandparents’ history, Chast’s parents feel their daughter Roz can never understand misery. It becomes clear why the author seems like a unbalanced person trying to be a good person and often freezing up—she doesn’t even drive due to anxiety.

Chast carefully details her parents’ personalities to show where her own neurosis come from. For example, her father’s thought process while using a toaster: “Now, let’s see…You put the bread into one of these two compartments…How do you know which one? Do you put the bread in first?? Or do you press this little level down first???” Chast continues, “He was bad at opening packages, like cookies or cereal. You could tell which ones he’d tried to open, because they were always torn some strange way, as if a raccoon had tried to get into them.”

Chast’s mother is completely different from her father. Elizabeth’s images are often scary, angry portrayals. Elizabeth thinks she’s right all the time, which leads to her anger. Chast notes that her mother wanted to be a concert pianist, but said, “It came too easily to me,” so she didn’t pursue the dream. This example shows the mother as egotistical and having unrealistic expectations. She also loves to yell, “I gave him a blast from the Chast!” and “I’m going to blow my top!!!” Based on these two parental personalities—nearly helpless and aggressive—the author becomes an indecisive, meek, terrified person, which she clearly details in her images and descriptions of her parents.

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George Chast and Roz Chast shaking in terror over the looming, terrifying Elizabeth Chast

The most interesting detail about the author’s anxiety stems from the notion that her parents maybe never should have had her. George and Elizabeth were such a tight pair—soul mates—that having a child interrupted their duo. When Chast leaves for college, she feels her parents are happy that she isn’t around anymore. She notes, “I left for college when I was 16. I think we were all relieved.”

As her parents get older—late 80s, early 90s—Chast must think about her parents’ wishes for after they’ve passed. But they refuse to talk about death because they are “going to 100” (years that is). Something Chast points out that I remember from when my own great-grandmother passed is how much stuff a person leaves behind. After all of my grandma’s papers and other items were sorted through (the papers took forever because who knows what letter is important or unimportant and why), Later, I couldn’t look at my own things the same way. I began to get rid of old birthday cards and dried flowers and clothes I hadn’t worn in a long time and kitschy items I’d received for presents, things I clung to for fear of losing an item of sentimental value. When my great-grandma died, I realized these things did not equal love.

Chast makes the same point and even lists the sorts of things people keep in a massive list that effectively overwhelms the reader:

An ergonomic garlic press and throw pillows and those stupid sunflower dessert plates and seven travel alarm clocks and eight nail clippers and a colander and a flatiron and three old laptops and barbells and a set of FUCKING BOCCE BALLS, and patio furniture and an autoharp, for God’s sake, and your old flute from high school and a zillion books and towels and sheets and a wok you never used and a make your own stained glass kit you never opened, and martini glasses and a yoga mat and what is THIS??? A cuckoo clock????? And so many clothes and hats and shoes and then there’s all the KIDS old stuff and don’t forget the furniture and four cameras and ice skates and whose tap shoes are these? and all the crap in the drawers and…”

When it becomes obvious that her parents cannot live alone, they are moved to an assisted living facility. I’ll leave the details for those who choose to read the book (and I recommend you do), but immediately after Chast talks about the death of her father, she includes a page just for a black and white picture of him dancing with daughter Roz Chast with the dates March 23, 1912 – October 17, 2007. It’s not often you see photos in graphic novels, but this page really gave George Chast a moment of silence and an opportunity to show he was a loving father. The author identified with her father (but didn’t understand or often like her mother).

Roz Chast includes a few varieties of images: there are the cartoon images, black and white photographs, sketches of her mother in her last days, and color photos of some items left in George and Elizabeth’s apartment that the author didn’t want to keep (the photos were enough).chast death

Roz Chast illustration

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a moving memoir from the perspective of an aging daughter who details what it’s like to deal with parents who are so very elderly, and also so very stubborn. Chast is honest in her portrayals, including how she abandoned most of her parents’ belongings for the super of the apartment to deal with, and how using money to house her parents in assisted living was cutting into her inheritance, which did and did not concern her. This graphic novel also takes a realistic, deep look at anxiety and the effects parents have on their children.

Over Easy

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Over Easy

pond coverMimi Pond’s graphic novel Over Easy (Drawn & Quarterly, 2014) captures a period of transition from hippies to punks in the 1970s. The description “fictionalized memoir” threw me for a loop. Was the main character, Margaret, Mimi Pond? Did these stories actually happen? Is Pond simply changing names to protect the other people in Over Easy? Or is it that she can’t remember exactly what happened, so she had to make some up? According to a post on her website, Pond was inspired by a restaurant in which she worked and includes a photo of all the waitresses from that time, suggesting that the graphic novel is pretty realistic overall. I’m able to move forward with a modicum of distrust, and I will refer to Margaret as a character, not the author.

All images are pen with watercolor in blue-ish/green shades. The simple color palate gives the images an old feel, whereas a full color palate can cause a graphic novel to seem too cartoony. Bright colors would not have matched with Pond’s sketchy style, and it would have been hard to take this serious story, well, seriously.

Over Easy begins May 23, 1978. Margaret is the only character in a diner called The Imperial when the manager, Lazlo, comes spinning into the scene. At the time, Margaret is an art student, and the world of blue collar workers fascinates her. She exchanges a drawing for a free meal, but the restaurant is about to close for the day, so Lazlo gives her an IOU.

The story then jumps back to how Margaret wound up at that diner and why she is interested in drawing. Margaret attends San Diego City College during a time when grants are plentiful. Quickly, she tires of hippy students, their all-agreeing attitudes, and the crappy 70s hippy art they produce. She applies to and attends the California College of Arts and Crafts to be far enough from her parents in San Diego, but still close to home. But, before she can actually finish college, Margaret is informed that the grant money has run out.

This is when we get back to that diner. Margaret heads into The Imperial with her IOU and falls in love with the place. To be fair, the cooks are misogynistic dicks (one cook calls every waitress a “lying whore”), the waitresses are bitches (they call each other “cunt”), and these are totally Margaret’s people—neither hippies nor punks. The rest of the graphic novel introduces readers to the cast of characters in the diner, some of the customers, and describes Margaret’s climb from college dropout to dishwasher to waitress.

The plot of Over Easy sounds almost too, well, easy. Yet, Mimi Pond captures a moment of change in American history and details the internal responses of one citizen. Really, the book is character and observation driven. The characters are just delightful, and Pond’s drawing style makes the connection between what these people are saying and how they look. I especially enjoy how everyone has a cigarette hanging out of their mouths, even during work hours in a restaurant.

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The cooks eye people on the streets suspiciously, suggesting their intense desire to leave right at 3:00 and not have to hang around and make orders a few minutes before the magic hour. They stare at the clocks, counting, watching, waiting. Helen’s wide open mouth and shrill directions show how dire the situation really is, even though it’s not. And so, someone must run to the door. I can picture these characters having better things to do with their lives, and they want out! The cooks and waitresses spend most of the day name calling and copping feels anyway; they’re exhausted.

For the most part, Pond uses basic square frames for her images, but some pages use a central object around which other images or words thematically tie together. Pond doesn’t do this too much, which is a relief. Some graphic novelists confuse clutter with style. Here’s an example: the bell that alerts waitresses that their order is ready tying together with the struggles (laid out like order checks) Margaret experiences on her first day as a waitress:

ding ding

The large swirling words “DING DING DING DING DING DING” intensify the feelings that Margaret experiences as she gets confused, makes mistakes, and gets it wrong.

There are a number of places where the design choices don’t work as well. A page that has six simple frames seems easy enough, but the thoughts may appear at the top and bottom of a frame. If someone is thinking or talking near the top of the next frame, my eyes would go from top of frame to top of frame, causing me to miss what’s on the bottom of a frame. Here is an example:

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I don’t typically like slice-of-life stories because they seem important only to the author. Yet, Mimi Pond shows why the 70s were an interesting time in America using unique viewpoints. While everyone around her is ingesting coke, weed, and speed, Margaret only snorts coke once after a fellow waitress offers it to sooth Margaret after a fight in the kitchen. The effect is not good, and we don’t hear about Margaret doing drugs again. She does, like her coworkers, find multiple sex partners, though Margaret’s rule is “don’t sleep with coworkers. Her coworkers’ rule seems to be “anything goes.” It’s hard for me to fathom having sex with everyone I find cute or snorting coke like it’s the most normal thing on the planet, but Pond integrates this part of the 70s culture in so smoothly and has Margaret comment on it in a way that shows she’s analyzing her surroundings. While I can’t relate, I can understand, and is that not the point of reading?

Over Easy was a fascinating read. I always wanted to know what bitchy waitresses Martha and Helen would do next, and I wanted to see in what way the cooks were trying to be smooth poets and cool guys. Lazlo held the whole thing together with his whimsical personality and strange rules. I didn’t want to befriend these people, but I liked being the outsider peeking in. The characters are like dysfunctional roommates or relatives, giving both a sense of love and hatred to each other. Riding along with Margaret while she navigates her life made this graphic novel a page turner.

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By “lying whore” she means waitress. page 71

Meet the Writer: Problems With Infinity

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 I am so pleased to have Sarah, creator of the blog Problems With Infinity, at Grab the Lapels. Sarah is a web comic and story teller who invites you into her life to read “tales of a delusional maniac.” Please be sure to follow Sarah’s blog to get great content about children watching scary movies, stupid buttons, crawling out of windows to escape parties, and becoming a dinosaur!

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Why did you start a blog?

Normally I’m a pretty reserved person. A lot of people who have met me probably don’t know the real me that well. I kind of have a copycat personality until I know someone well enough, and only then will I let them know how weird I really am!

This past year has been a hard year for me, and I hit my personal rock bottom. At the time I had also been reading a lot of memoir style books and thought, ‘Hey I’m just as fucked up as these writers, why can’t the world know about how fucked up I am?’

So I started my blog, Problems With Infinity, to kind of liberate myself from being so afraid to let people in. I’ve been overjoyed at the amount of positive feedback I’ve received; it’s been really wonderful.

What was the first comic you ever created about?

I was pretty young, maybe 5 or 6, and there was this Garfield comic game my aunt had on her computer. I made a couple of comics that I thought were the greatest things ever created. When I showed them to my family they all laughed so hard; I was very proud.

Later I found out that they had been cracking up because of how many words I misspelled! Thank god I have spellcheck now.

What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?

Hmm, I never really wanted to be something for a long period of time. I mean of course there was the bird phase, the songwriter phase, the queen of everything phase…For a while I wanted to be the god of the wind, and at some other point I wanted to be the kind of vet that could bring pets back from the dead…(I should not have been allowed to watch Pet Sematary).

I’m still not quite sure what I want to be when I grow up, but I’d like to think it will be something related to sloths or spider monkeys. Or else, maybe I could start a goat sanctuary and write comics about my goats… you know, the typical dream job.

I think all of that stuff influences my writing in some way, maybe? Not sure…

What happens when you’re not happy with your writing/drawings?

I get really excited about my writing and drawings in the beginning, but once I’ve worked on them for a while I start to suspect they might be terrible.

I tend to get really depressed and pitiful and basically beg my boyfriend to let me know that they are funny and okay to post. Once I post them and get some positive feedback, I recover enough to start the process again.  It’s quite pathetic really, but that’s honestly how it goes with me.

How do your friends and family respond to your writing?

I haven’t told many people about it, because I worry it will affect what I can confidently post about. But most of the people I’ve told have been very supportive, and that is pretty amazing considering when I decide to do something I get kind of obsessed with it. Which is really unfortunate if you happen to be someone I’m close to.

Are you reading anything right now? 

Most recently I finished the Liveship Traders Trilogy by Robin Hobb, which was amazing. And tonight I’m planning on re-reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic for inspiration.

Are you writing or drawing anything right now?

I just finished up writing a piece about dressing up in weird costumes as a kid and the fallout from that.

I’ll probably start drawing pictures for it at the coffee shop on Monday, and then get depressed about it all on Tuesday. I’ll seek all types of reassurance on Wednesday, and post it courageously on Thursday. On Friday I’ll be in a state of drunken regret, but by Saturday I’ll be pretty sure I’m awesome and I’ll start on my next piece.

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