Life’s Rich Pageant : Keiler Roberts’ “Chlorine Gardens”

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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2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Collected Editions (Contemporary)

Let’s keep plugging away here, shall we? This time around on out year-end wrap we’re looking at the top 10 collected editions of 2017, with a slight change to my previously-announced methodology : rather than placing everything “Modern Age” (roughly the 1980s) and beyond in this category, I’ve narrowed it to collections of comics published post-2000, so that everything being referred to as “contemporary” at least comes from, ya know, this century. Apart from that, however, the category remains a fairly broad one : TPB or hardcover collections of single issues, webcomics collections, diary comics collections, and anthologies all fall into what I consider to be “collected editions” — in other words, a lot of this stuff is more or less brand new, and many critics who don’t share my OCD affliction might even call some of these “graphic novels.” I’m not gonna do it that way, though, because my list of the top 10 graphic novels is going to be just that : original graphic novels constructed from the outset to be published as a single volume.

That’s it for the particulars, then, apart from a reminder that there may be a couple of tail-end-2016 releases that make their way onto these lists because they hit shops too late to be properly reviewed by yours truly last year, and that each book will be summarized quickly — these are not proper “reviews” or anything of the sort. Okay, let’s do this!

10. Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero by Michael DeForge (Drawn+Quarterly) – DeForge revealed a more whimsical and even, dare I say it, “fun” side in these single-page webcomics, and they read very cohesively as a collection. Absurdist humor, an idiosyncratic protagonist, and a decidedly revisionist take on “funny animals” combine to form a typically singular (there’s a contradiction for you) DeForge reading experience.

9. Sunburning by Keiler Roberts (Koyama Press) – Roberts’ autobio webcomics are a stark look at life’s challenges and its subtle beauty and they balance the joys and drudgeries of parenting with a quiet and unassuming honesty that’s entirely un-sentimental, but not in any way clinical. In addition, her simple-but-detailed illustration draws the eye in to notice every little detail, and there are a lot of details to notice. It’s always a pleasure to see her work collected in print, and this is her strongest book yet.

8. A Process Of Drastically Reducing One’s Expectations by Gabby Schulz (Phase Eight Publishing) – If you know Schulz, you know that this collection of his diary comics won’t be an “easy” read — he doesn’t spell out the particulars of his life with any great specificity, but you can see his mental, physical, and financial deterioration playing out before your eyes in a manner as relentless as it is nonchalant. So, yeah, this is no “easy” read — but it’s a compelling and engrossing one, no doubt about it.

7. Band For Life by Anya Davidson (Fantagraphics) – These chronicles of a multi-species punk band in a sci-fi future Chicago sure seem an awful lot like those of people I knew in my 20s who were in bands, so I guess that means the themes here are timeless, indeed. And Davison herself reflects the never-say-die ethos of her protagonists : after fleeing Vice’s digital sweatshop, she continued posting these strips on her Tumblr page, and finally saw them through to completion in this magnificent hardback collection.

6. Boundless by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn+Quarterly) – Breathtaking illustration, ethereal themes, and naturalistic visual storytelling combine to make this collection of Tamaki’s strips a supremely memorable read, one that analyzes her female progatonists’ complex relationships with themselves, their bodies, their hopes and fears, and their self-image with disarming candor and incredible grace. Stirring, soul-searing stuff.

5. You & A Bike & A Road by Eleanor Davis (Koyama Press) – This travelogue composed of diary strips and single illustrations documenting Davis’ bicycle trip from her parents’ home in Arizona to her adoptive hometown of Athens, Ga. doesn’t chain itself to anything like a traditional narrative framework, instead providing an interpretive, experiential look at a journey every bit as philosophical, even spiritual, as it is physical. Another resoundingly resonant work from someone making a very strong case to be considered the cartoonist of her generation.

4. Mirror Mirror II , edited by Julia Gfrorer and Sean T. Collins (2dcloud) – The second volume of 2dcloud’s annual(-ish) anthology has a loose “horror” theme at its core, buy beyond that editors Gfrorer and Collins really do give their contributors free reign to explore the subject in wide-open, entirely unique ways. And what a group of contributors they’ve got! A unique mix of folks we see a lot of working in other genres (Simon Hanselmann, Josh Simmons), folks whose work typically does tend toward the horrific (Gfrorer, Noel Freibert, Clive Barker — yes, really!), and folks we just plain don’t get to see anywhere near enough of these days (Al Columbia, Renee French, Dame Darcy, Carol Swain, Nicole Claveloux), all presented in the kind of uncompromisingly high-quality package we’ve come to expect from this premier “boutique” art-comics publisher. This is a book overflowing with both dark beauty and artistic integrity.

3. Providence Acts Two And Three by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (Avatar Press) – I’ve raved enough about this series over the last couple of years — but goddamn, it’s so good that I almost feel as if I’ve undersold it. Suffice to say, Moore and Burrows have created what  is undoubtedly the smartest, most richly-detailed, most multi-layered horror comic in history. Act Two collects issues 5-8, Act Three finishes the story off with issues 9-12.

2. True Swamp Book 2: Anywhere But In — by Jon Lewis (Uncivilized Books) – Finally collecting Lewis’ two “bumper-sized” issues from the early “aughts,” his second go-round with the foul-mouthed (but hyper-intelligent) Lenny the Frog and his bog-dwelling friends is, if anything, even more funny, smart, and endearing than the first, and far more visually accomplished and experimental. Matching the wit and charm of Walt Kelly’s Pogo with a distinct underground sensibility, there has simply never been another comic like True Swamp — and, chances are, there never will be again. I believe “sublime” is the word we’re looking for.

1. Farmer Ned’s Comics Barn by Gerald Jablonski (Fantagraphics Underground) – At last presented in the oversized format that these dense, information-packed (both visually and verbally) strips pretty much demand, this near-as-we’re-ever-likely-to-get-to-definitive collection of Jablonski’s work showcases his singular genius in a manner his small-but-dedicated legion of fans could only have dreamed of until it finally happened. Utterly unlike any other comics ever even conceived of — much less done — by anyone else, this is a hermetically-sealed universe unto itself where the rules of what “should” or “shouldn’t” work not only don’t apply, but simply don’t matter. Jablonski reigns supreme in his kingdom of one.

Okay, looks like that’ll do it! Again, this list seemed like a daunting thing to put together until I started doing it, and then it all came together almost on its own, as if it were just being channeled through me. Freaky, huh?

Next up : my picks for the top 10 collections of vintage (as in, pre-2000) comics released in 2017. Hope to see you back here in a couple of days for that one!

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.