How To Read “How To Be Alive”

Toward the tail end of 2017 — yeah, I know, I’m still playing a little bit of “catch-up” here and there, sue me — the always-interesting Retrofit Comics/Big Planet Comics publishing co-venture released one of the more thoroughly engrossing books of the year, cartoonist/painter Tara Booth’s How To Be Alive, but no matter how many times I’ve perused its contents, either casually or with serious intent (it lends itself quite nicely to either approach, although the latter will always be more rewarding, of course), I haven’t been able to wrap my head around the best way to review it. Finally, after one complex, slowly-developing emotional reaction to it after another, I seemed to arrive back at where I started with it, and that’s when it sunk in : this was Booth’s point all along.

If there’s beauty to be found in the mundane, this comic offers the surest evidence of it — a series of 40 brightly-colored and inventively-arranged gouache paintings, exploding off the page with patterns and textures that enhance, rather than distract or detract, from their uniformly “everyday” subject matter, I take these wordless, border-free strips to be autobiographical in nature, although they can just as easily be interpreted as simply a series of events featuring the same nameless protagonist. You go with what works best for you, and again — I think that’s Booth’s point.

Life’s small triumphs, tribulations, and tragedies are the focus here, and whether Booth is portraying herself/her stand-in popping pimples, trying to get comfortable in bed, eating dinner, gulping down her prescriptions, cutting her hair, trying on shoes, looking for a missing sock, or exercising, nothing on offer is outside the sphere of the absolutely ordinary, much less anything remotely exotic, and as such the beating heart of the work is quickly established as being commonality or universality of experience, marking this as one of the most genuinely populist works of art in any medium you’re likely to cross paths with. Booth’s technical execution is exemplary, sure, but nothing she’s doing feels out of reach by dint of the sheer “oh yeah, I’ve been there” relatability of her visual narrative(s) alone. This comic may not be “about you” specifically — but what the hell, it may as well be.

Certain of the vignettes are unique to the female life experience, of course — that’s to be expected — but Booth’s keen ability to focus, with empathy, upon the small foibles of any given scene, as well as her fluency in the language of communicating emotional absorption of/reaction to any given occurrence, work hand-in-hand to pull readers of any age, race, gender, ethnicity, orientation/identification right into the material, and guide the eye in smooth and naturalistic fashion toward what matters most in each image. The book may be silent, sure, but this unforced expressiveness speaks volumes about Booth’s confidence as an artist. She “had you at hello” (God, did I really just do that? I’m so sorry), she knows it, and she never lets you go from her flow.

In purely practical terms, this is an impressive enough achievement, but the way Booth transmits — with ease, immediacy and heart — just about every “spot” along the human emotional spectrum while never giving in to the “easy outs” offered by melodrama, parody, self-pity, or smarm? That’s what elevates this book to the level of the genuinely remarkable. My best advice, then, when it comes to how best to approach this work? Cliched as it no doubt sounds, I say just feel your way through it — and enjoy the utterly unique sensation of your heart beating in time with a comic book.

How To Be Alive sells for $8.00 and that’s more than reasonable for a celebration of all that it means to be ali — shit, too obvious, not going there. Order it up post-haste if you know what’s good for you at


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