Writer and English Professor, Kathleen Venema, explores comic book depictions of the often complex and complicated worlds of ageing, caring and end of life.
Over eight panels in Joyce Farmer’s 200-page graphic memoir, Special Exits, readers track Farmer’s old, very hard-of-hearing father, Lars, as he discovers that his wife, Rachel, has fallen and become wedged sideways in the bathtub (2010, 13). Each equal-sized panel is densely inked and minutely detailed, and together they offer intimate, moment-to-moment close-ups of the two heavyset elders, as Lars determines to brace one socked foot against the bathtub and pull a towel-draped Rachel out by her wrists. Despite Rachel’s acute pain, they decide not to seek medical attention and so, like many of Special Exits’ slow-moving episodes, this one has life-changing consequences, though it takes several years and 35 pages for protagonists and readers to learn that Rachel’s pelvis was fractured in the fall (2010, 48).
Until recently, using long-form comics to tell stories of ageing, caring and end-of-life might have seemed unlikely, but over the past decade-plus, an increasing number have appeared, each demonstrating the genre’s unique suitedness to such narratives. Many are memoirs by caregivers and, as many caregiving memoirs do, they focus at least as much on the caregiver as on the person receiving care.[i] Farmer’s is a notable exception; her intensely controlled visual design keeping readers’ eyes rivetted on her octogenarian father and stepmother in their final years of life, as they accommodate their own and one another’s physical and cognitive limitations, and navigate their increasing needs for informal and formal care. By contrast, Roz Chast’s 228-page Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? quickly reveals itself to be almost as much about Chast as it is about her parents. Chast was already an award-winning New Yorker cartoonist when she published Can’t We Talk… in 2014 and she brings her scathingly dark humour to this extended story about her parents’ physical and mental decline; the staggering work of securing adequate, desirable and financially accessible care; and her parents’ roles in her desperately unhappy childhood. Chast’s rapidly mixed, sometimes frenzied visual styles, her ready self-deprecation, and her unabashed denigration of ageing and older people clearly resonate with thousands of readers: Can’t We Talk… has won and been shortlisted for multiple awards and was a #1 New York Times bestseller.
In Afloat: A Memoir about Mum, Dementia, and Trying Not to Drown (2019), Nigel Baines focuses, as Chast does, on the confounding work of finding and keeping adequate and financially accessible care, the regularly disorienting experience of caregiving, and the extreme guilt that caregiving can induce. Like Chast, Baines is often laugh-out-loud funny and, like Chast, uses a variety of visual styles. Baines’ work can also be startingly beautiful, offering deeply developed image patterns and evidencing, again and again, the complex meanings and the conceptual depth that narrating with both words and pictures enables. The narrative’s first double-page spread, reproduced here, is the culmination of four previous pages that visualize Nigel’s[ii] nightmare of drowning at sea, a gorgeous, terrifying sequence of intensely coloured panels that inaugurate the narrative’s repeated references to water (2019, 4-9). Readers quickly learn that the reality that Nigel wakes into, over the four sinuous panels on pages eight and nine, is of a Christmas morning alone in his mother’s home.
Nigel’s mother is in hospital with a broken hip and Nigel has been compelled to return from London to his hometown of Grantham, to care for her. The narrative proceeds from here, deftly weaving Baines’ childhood memories into his now-constant struggles to find and provide adequate care for his mother, who has, while in hospital, been diagnosed with “Mixed Dementia” (2019, 13).
Baines’ work also compares importantly with other graphic caregiving memoirs. Like Aneurin Wright in Things to do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park … When You’re 29 and Unemployed,[iii] Baines ponders riveting questions about life, living, dying and death. And like Dana Walrath in Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass, Baines is explicitly concerned about best care practices. Aliceheimer’s, however, is Walrath’s story about the exceptionally high level of personalized Alzheimer’s care she is able to provide for her mother in the U.S., where health insurance is purchased privately.
Baines, by contrast, takes on the free-market ideologies that have penetrated British health institutions and public models of care. In the equal-parts humorous and galling two-page sequence pictured here, he uses six, page-width horizontal panels to visualize “The care system”, as a passenger arriving at an airport and being confronted everywhere by that paramount neoliberal value, individual choice. Baines’ scenario envisions someone who, despite having a ticket in hand, must choose for himself (i) the plane he’d like to fly on, (ii) the pilot for the flight, and (iii) the time he’d like to fly, based on his own calculations of the relationships among fuel requirements, airport regulations and weather charts (2019, 90-1).
Baines sustains a sense of comics’ special aptness for stories about ageing, caregiving and end-of-life over the course of the memoir, sometimes rendering metaphors “concrete on the page,”[iv] as in the example above, and sometimes working more implicitly. For example, as in a poignant five-page sequence in which 19 small, randomly recurring panels communicate the eerie repetitions and non-repetitions that characterize his mother’s behaviour as she struggles to situate herself in her life, remember his answers to her questions, or fathom what they might mean (2019, 109-13).
Afloat’s 176 pages burst with visual tours-de-force, an especially memorable one appearing near the memoir’s end, when Nigel’s mother requires an entirely new level of care. Baines describes the difficulty of finding an appropriate and affordable place, and the new home’s daunting distance from his mother’s town, then devotes a full colour page to the new home’s horror-story appearance. What happens next is a quietly staggering display of comics’ capacity to communicate the non-linear and the non-logical. Using a standard three-by-four panel format, Baines visualizes the difficulty of finding his mother’s room every time he comes to visit (2019, 148). The Escher-like sequence/non-sequence, reproduced here, invites us to follow Nigel left-to-right, as he opens a door, then slides down a pole, then (or is it later) climbs down (or is it up) a ladder, then exits a lift, while also crossing right-to-left, possibly to re-climb the ladder.
Impossible in real terms and yet impossible not to see,[v] the page’s paradoxical activities induce something like the vertigo, the nausea, the confusion and the frustration that many caregivers feel, obliged too often to navigate both literally unfamiliar spaces and bureaucratic mazes designed without actual human beings in mind. Paradoxically, of course, these comics are also comical; they make us laugh.
I’m not yet aware of any graphic end-of-life narratives that focus on the author’s own ageing, but at least a handful of fictional texts about older protagonists have recently appeared,[vi] reinforcing an awareness of the form’s special aptness to such stories. Comics’ ability to represent multiple, intersecting events and temporalities; convey complex, hybrid subjectivities; focus on bodies, including as those bodies change over time; and juxtapose “the seeable” and “the sayable”,[vii] make it a compelling medium for stories about people at the end of their lives, the care they provide for themselves and their ageing friends and partners, the care they require from family members, strangers and systems, and the existential questions that end-of-life can’t help but prompt.
Kathleen Venema is an Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg, where she works on life writing – particularly graphic life writing – about ageing, illness, disability and care. Her Alzheimer’s matriography, Bird-Bent Grass: A Memoir, in Pieces (2018) was shortlisted for the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-fiction and will appear in audiobook form in 2022 with Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Baines, Nigel. 2019. Afloat: A Memoir about Mum, Dementia, and Trying Not to Drown. Croydon: Flying Carp Books.
Chast, Roz. 2014. Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? New York: Bloomsbury.
Farmer, Joyce. 2010. Special Exits: A Graphic Memoir. Seattle: Fantagraphics.
Walrath, Dana. 2016. Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Wright, Aneurin. 2015. Things to do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park … When You’re 29 and Unemployed. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
[i] Falcus, Sarah and Katsura Sako. 2019. Contemporary Narratives of Dementia: Ethics, Ageing, Politics. New York: Routledge, 42-51.
[ii] I’m distinguishing between the memoir’s author, Baines, and Nigel, the character Baines depicts.
[iii] Things to do… chronicles the months Wright spends caring for his father as his father dies of emphysema.
[iv] Chute, Hillary. 2017. Why Comics?: From Underground to Everywhere, New York: Harper, 259.
[v] Baetens, Jan and Hugo Frey. 2015. The Graphic Novel: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 105-6.
[vi] Paco Roca’s Wrinkles (2015); Jeff Lemire’s Frogcatchers (2019); Hiromi Goto and Ann Xu’s Shadow Life (2021).
[vii] Chute, Hillary. 2010. Graphic Women: Life Narrative & Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia UP, 217.