I’ll let you in on a little secret : people have always been telling me to put a sock in it. I’ve been an annoyingly opinionated SOB my entire life, but now that I have some online outlets for my opining, I’m far more reserved in my daily interactions with folks. Even still, when you’ve got a side gig as a critic, plenty of people are still going to wish you’d shut up and go away. But what if you shut up — and don’t go away?
Canadian cartoonist Georgia Webber had to live through the answer to that question when a sudden and quite severe throat injury forced her into months of physically- and medically-mandated silence, and to call her experiences “devastating” is probably to sell them a bit too short — but they do make for fascinating, engrossing, and revelatory reading in her new (-ish, more on that presently) graphic memoir, Dumb, sub-titled Living Without A Voice.
Medical maladies have proven to be — and I really hate to put it like this, but — fertile ground for creative cartooning in the past, from Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and Frank Stack’s Our Cancer Year to Gabby Schulz’ Sick and Monsters, but Webber isn’t one to follow a trail blazed by others, as her sheer persistence in getting this material into print proves : originally published in single-issue “floppy” format by Retrofit/Big Planet, then moving over to Radiator Comics, and now, finally, collected in its entirety in a handsome hardback by Fantagraphics, it’s been the proverbial long and winding road for this comic, but that’s nothing compared to what Webber endured during the period of her life that forms the basis of this comic.
Webber had been leading the relatively typical (which is to say, carefree) life of a young Montrealer — splitting her time between a paid gig at a cafe and a volunteer one at a bike co-op, in addition to her cartooning and fairly active socializing — when her malady hit, and watching events beyond her control increasingly dictate, indeed to eventually entirely re-frame, the terms of her existence is uncomfortable in the extreme, but to her credit she never plays for her audience’s sympathy, instead trusting in her visual storytelling skills (which are quite considerable) to accurately relate her journey with supreme emotional honesty. It takes guts to lay yourself bare like this, but there’s not an ounce of self-indulgence on offer here, and that puts it a good few steps ahead of many autobio comics right there.
Unable to continue working a customer service job, Webber is forced to get creative when it comes to making ends meet — unable to converse with friends she needs to find new ways to communicate — unable to engage in her favorite hobby, singing, she has to find new creative outlets. All of these life changes necessarily result in an increasingly isolated and lonely existence, and Webber’s creative use of two-color illustration (I might be mistaken here, but it looks to me like she skips the pencils stage and draws with ink pens) expertly captures the feel of a life that is simultaneously devolving into chaos yet also shrinking in on her. Anxiety, fear, displacement, loss of control — all are conveyed with a kind of raw expressiveness that incorporates loose-form squiggles, dark splotches of ink, and even collage into an appropriately chaotic visual repetoire that says a hell of a lot with an economy of linework that at times almost even borders on the austere.
Ultimately, though, it is Webber’s struggle with a healthy self-image — the image that, let’s face it, she’s used to — that is perhaps the hardest hurdle for her to overcome, but is also, not at all paradoxically, the goal she is striving for. Her friends, her artistry, and her admirable sense of determination ultimately get her through, but not before she has to come to terms with a lot of truths most of us will hopefully never have to face, chief among them how intricately our ability to speak and our very sense of identity are intertwined. Every day without a voice was a struggle beyond Webber’s previous level of comprehension, and I imagine that relating her story was very nearly as difficult, but she emerges out the other end with a new appreciation of both herself and her life — as will you by the time you finish this remarkable book.