Somewhere in between life’s big moments is hidden, I’m told, its secrets, its power, its richness. The literal “little things that make life worth living.” I humbly submit that no cartoonist around these days captures the often-bittersweet character of those “little” things than Keiler Roberts, and her latest Koyama Press collection, Chlorine Gardens, is the best evidence yet for this assertion.
Not that the book doesn’t chronicle huge, life-changing moments and do so with a kind of quietly vigorous poignancy : the birth of her daughter Xia, a fixture in her strips for years now, is related by means of both “emotional memory” and “just the facts” experiential narrative; her grandfather’s death is told as part rumination on the importance of familial ties, part philosophical treatise on mortality as that which well and truly unites us all; her continuing struggles with bipolar disorder give her ample opportunity to hone her already-fine chops in the recently-minted “graphic medicine” subgenre — and on a related note, her recent MS diagnosis and its affects on her daily life loom large over most of the proceedings here (see cover above) and inform the character of the book’s “DNA” at a core level. And yet —
It is those small events, even non-events, within the Roberts family (husband Scott and dog Crooky filling out the “cast,” as always) that tell, for lack of a better term, “the whole story” : from observations on the old “too much of a good thing” adage to a strip on “my favorite things” to the wry glances between husband and wife and the accidental wisdom that can only come from the mind and mouth of a child, the delicate balance between the momentous and the mundane in these pages is rather breathtaking in its eloquent understatement. Like life itself, Roberts’ subject matter just flows, and its remarkable strength is to be gleaned from how seamlessly it all flows together.
Lack of titles on, and breaks between, strips plays a part in this, of course, but that creative decision is really just a reflection of the essential character of the work itself, a case of the “outer” magnifying the “inner” by taking its cues directly from it — and even though these stories jump around in time with something akin to gleeful abandon, the internal logic that connects them all is stronger than any web mere linear succession can spin. Read this book in one sitting — which you’ll likely feel compelled to do regardless — and you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about.
Yet all of this, remarkable as it doubtless is, would be far less impactful if not for the arresting quality of Roberts’ art, a visual language composed of economic lines, masterfully-rendered bodies and facial expressions, and cleanly-delineated environments — she strives for, and consistently achieves, clarity above all else, and that can only happen when a cartoonist has clarity of purpose. Roberts has always had that, and it’s becoming more and more confidently-expressed as time goes on.
We’re blessed with many fine graphic memoirists these days, but with Chlorine Gardens, Keiler Roberts firmly establishes herself as being at the head of the class.
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