The Alchemy Of The Mundane : Why Keiler Roberts’ “Sunburning” Is One Of The Best Autobio Comics You’ll Ever Read

I couldn’t do it, and not only because I can’t draw to save my life — nope, the whole notion of giving perfect strangers a warts-and-all look at my life is just something I’m not psychologically equipped for. And yet for decades now, “first-rate” cartoonists from Justin Green to Mary Fleener to Joe Matt to Chester Brown to Seth to Gabrielle Bell to Julie Doucet to both Crumbs have made the autobiographical strip an essential part of their repertoire, while for authors such as Harvey Pekar and Dennis Eichhorn, committing their lives to paper for “all-star” collections of artists to run with and illustrate was their bread and butter — and while there’s less autbio/memoir going on in the world of “alternative” comics than there was, say, 20 years ago, it’s still an active genre with some truly notable talents both working within and (crucially, in my view) redefining its boundaries and scope. All of which, I suppose, is my way of saying that if you were into autobio comics for a while in the early ’90s but found yourself (understandably) getting bored with watching teenage (or even fully-grown) versions of your favorite cartoonists jerking off, rest assured : things have changed. And one of the people at the forefront of that growth and maturation is Evanston, Illinois-based Keiler Roberts.

She’s been at it for a decade or so by my count, serializing the unvarnished realities of her daily triumphs and tribulations both online and in the pages of her self-published Powdered Milk collections, and in 2012 gathered up most of the early issues of that ongoing project in a nicely comprehensive volume of the same name, following it in 2015 with a secondary collection, Miseryland, both of which were issued under the auspices of CreateSpace’s print-on-demand service. Each book  is superb and offers a fascinating glimpse of an artist’s confidence and ease, as well as her cartooning skills, developing right before our eyes between two covers, and with a much-deserved Ignatz Award or two under her belt, and more than one editor of The Best American Comics including her work in their annual bumper volumes,  it was only a matter of time before one of the semi-major independent publishers took notice.

Fast-forward to 2017 and that day has finally come to pass, as Roberts’ latest collection, Sunburning, has made its way onto shelves courtesy of Koyama Press . Annie Koyama is absolutely killing it this year, and this book is one of the biggest reasons why : wry observation, droll humor, a keen eye for physical detail, and genuine fearlessness have been the essential ingredients of Roberts’ storytelling from the outset, but here they are joined by a latterly-developing sense of timing and finesse that elevates the varied-length strips to levels she was gradually “feeling her way” toward earlier in her career. Artistic growth is (scratch that, should be) a never-ending process, of course, but there comes a time when you just know that somebody has fully arrived. For Keiler Roberts, that moment is now.

Which isn’t to say that if you’ve enjoyed the frank and honest “vibe” of her earlier strips that anything has necessarily changed in that regard : Roberts, her daughter Xia, her husband Scott, and various friends and relatives are all still present and accounted for, but here are presented with a more implicit understanding of how to visually communicate their points of view even if the cartoonist herself can’t literally “get inside their heads.” Yes, this is still very much a first-person narrative, but it’s one that does much more than make allowances for the participation of those closest to her — it’s one that revolves around them every bit as much as it does the author’s interior thoughts and narration. Even when Roberts is devoting pages to descriptions and illustrations of her borderline-debilitating psychological and physical challenges, the weight of how these conditions affect Scott and Xia is felt — as is the support they provide just by being there for her. It’s not always possible to quantify the method by which this is communicated, mind you — but that just makes its silent efficacy all the more remarkable.

Still, for all the necessary focus on bipolar disorder, depth perception problems, and the fluid and transient nature of many of her senses, Roberts is still, at heart, a deadpan humorist, and her stories — whether one page on ten pages — always end with something akin to a punchline, which provides for a smooth and naturalistic sense of punctuation when reading many (or all) of these strips in a single sitting. Roberts’ exceptional pacing keeps the “flow” going from one segment to the next, and her detailed-without-being-belabored pencil drawings always find some interesting detail to draw your attention — and when she includes several details to catch your eye, she manages to do it in a way that doesn’t make the panels look cluttered or “busy.” Not many cartoonists can make folding laundry or opening a door look very nearly fascinating, but damn if Roberts doesn’t have the ability to do exactly that.

There’s also a narrative generosity in these pages that many autobio artists frankly could take a lesson from : pointing out your own foibles is easy enough and Roberts isn’t afraid to accurately detail her own occasional pettiness, social awkwardness, lack of sympathy, or insensitivity, but it’s another matter entirely to allow your “co-stars” to get the best lines or to shuffle out of the fame altogether and let them “take over” when the situation calls for it. Yes, these stories are by Keiler Roberts — but they’re every bit as much about Xia and Scott as they are her.

As such, everyone has moments to “shine,” moments to do anything but, and plenty of moments that fall somewhere in between. Xia’s now matured to the point where ethical concerns about her representation in her mother’s comics have become a frequent philosophical quandary, and this adds a frisson of underlying tension to the proceedings that is ever-present, but these perhaps-unanswerable questions never alter the intrinsically straight-forward character of Roberts’ memoir. It’s a delicate balancing act — hell, a veritable tight-rope walk — to pull this off successfully, and one that Roberts has at times struggled with, but in Sunburning she’s firing on all cylinders and, while she clearly hasn’t completely resolved these issues in her mind, she seems to have achieved a sense of peace with this particular unknown (as well as others) and is prepared to trust her own artistic instincts going forward in terms of what to present, as well as when and how to present it.

As you might expect from any book so intimately tied to the interpersonal dynamics of a family, there are scenes in Sunburning that will break your heart, scenes that will make you laugh out loud, scenes that will make you think to yourself “damn, I can sure relate to that,” and scenes that will make you say “geez, what are they thinking?” But there are also plenty of quiet interludes, plenty of monotonous sequences, and plenty of awkward pauses — and  the ability of Roberts to transfix you even when the “action” is on “pause” is perhaps the strongest testament of all to her skills. More religious minds than mine have opined that “God is in the space between” people, things, and events, and more philosophical minds than mine have said much the same about life. Both may be true for all I know, but what I’m absolutely certain of is that Keiler Roberts’ ability to illustrate those “in-between” times and spaces with unforced honesty, disarming candor, and not a white of pretension is what marks her as one of the finest cartoonists of her generation.



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