December 2, 2019

A Friend of The Enemy Will Always Be My Friend: A Short Goodbye.

I started this site 3/26/10 with a post about the band Jesus and The Mary Chain, of all things. This was followed closely by a review of my friend Allan Hayslip’s debut album, Thinktankubator, short pieces celebrating the poets Walt Whitman and Russell Edson, and a review of my friend Chris Howell’s documentary about amateur boxing, Sweet Science

My first comics review on this site was of Kill Shakespeare from IDW. 

Things kinda blew up from there. 

YCE became a dumping ground for things that caught my eye or ear -- endless chicken videos, too many posts about Lou Reed, Serbian choral music, Fliff Night -- things like that. It was an expression of my inner world while being punctuated by the reposting of writing I was doing about comics for other sites such as Pop Culture Zoo, Forces of Geek, Psycho Drive-In, and, most importantly, Comics Bulletin. 

It was during my tenure writing for Comics Bulletin that I found both my voice and my niche -- small press/self-published comics.
Once Comics Bulletin ran its course, I started to see Your Chicken Enemy as a venue to celebrate the art form that I love so much, and I began to recruit a number of amazing critics to write insightful things about spectacular works. It’s been mostly a self-funded labor of love since then, and, in its entirety, YCE can boast:

  • Over 1800 posts
  • With over 650 reviews of comics
  • From 29 amazing contributors
  • Leading to over 775,000 page views

Not bad, all in all.

And the time has come to move on. 

This will be the final post on Your Chicken Enemy (though the site will stay up in perpetuity, as there is so much wonderful content to be found here).

As you may or may not know, myself and fellow critics Alex Hoffman, Rob Clough, and Ryan Carey have established and launched a comics-centered non-profit corporation, FIELDMOUSE PRESS, to support the comics arts and shine a light on the work of so many talented cartoonists and critics. 
Our first venture is a criticism hub called SOLRAD, which is scheduled to launch on 01/01/20 (and which is currently seeking funding for its operating costs -- click here to learn about our goals and how you can participate).

I’ll be taking over the role of Editor-In-Chief of SOLRAD, and you’ll be able to find my writing there in the future, along with many of the voices I’ve been privileged to feature here on YCE.

Thank you so much for supporting me and YCE. If you’ve enjoyed Your Chicken Enemy, then you’re going to LOVE SOLRAD. 

I hope to see you there. Please feel free to contact me anytime at

With Great Love and Appreciation,
Daniel Elkin

October 15, 2019

FIELDMOUSE PRESS needs your help

You may have noticed things have slowed down considerably here at Your Chicken Enemy. This is because our focus has now turned to our next venture, FIELDMOUSE PRESS!

Fieldmouse Press is a new nonprofit comics publisher, and we need your help to launch our 2020 publishing season. We're excited about our plans and we are asking for your assistance in making them a reality. 

Our first major publishing project will launch in January 2020. It's a comics journalism hub called SOLRAD ( This project will be built on four pillars - comics, criticism, collaboration, and community. Our goal is to create a safe place to explore the comics arts where cartoonists and critics can engage the artform together. As a part of this goal, we plan to publish quality comics criticism, interviews, features, advocacy for the form, and new comics for the web. 

Being upfront with our financial plans, costs, and objectives is paramount to us. We will always be transparent and open about our finances. While part of this is due to the requirements of being a charitable organization in the United States, more than that we want the community to understand how their donations are being used. 

Fieldmouse Press is running on a minimum required overhead and has reduced nearly all potential costs for managerial responsibilities. For SOLRAD, we have a solid team of volunteers offering their expertise at no cost, allowing the majority of donated dollars (94%!!!) to go directly to artists and authors. 

While we are planning for a larger publishing footprint, including print publishing, in the next 2-5 years, funding and operating SOLRAD will be our primary aim in this first full year of operations. Here's a breakdown of our financial goals for the project: 
While much of the work of the press will be funded with grants, we are also seeking the assistance of institutional & individual donors. We know that our efforts to broaden the critical conversation around the comics arts and shine light on the medium won’t be successful unless we have the support of our community. 

We're using to raise funds instead of a Patreon, Kickstarter, or GoFundMe because donations to Fieldmouse Press are tax-deductible. 

Thank you in advance for your generosity. 

Please share this page with friends and colleagues, and please contact us at if you have any questions.

October 14, 2019

Familiar Deformations: Rob Clough reviews O JOSEPHINE! by Jason

At this stage in the great Norwegian cartoonist Jason's career, he's not doing much to necessarily surprise the reader. His newest collection of short stories from Fantagraphics, O Josephine!, will feel very familiar in its content to long-time readers. A whimsical autobiographical story about walking on a well-known trail? Check! A funny but poignant historical mash-up? Check! A hilarious reimagining of a beloved artist? Check! A mundane but sordid account of relationships gone horribly wrong? Check! He's covered all of this ground elsewhere, but shortening and sharpening these stories for this volume is what makes them interesting. Jason has always been a master of restraint and deadpan humor, as he's allowed readers to make connections in his frequently enigmatic narratives. The visually deadpan quality of his anthropomorphic figures, frequently sitting slumped with poor posture, often allows him to both double-down on the absurd or salacious quality of his stories. In story after story, Jason's greatest skill is in recontextualizing his familiar figures again and again. 

O Josephine! opens with the droll autobiographical short story “The Wicklow Way.” It's a follow-up of sorts to his book On The Camino. That book was a departure, as Jason had never done any autobio before, but the approach was the same as always: restrained in tone with occasional splashes of absurd humor. Both stories are about going on long, historical walking trails, and "The Wicklow Way" is in Ireland. There's nothing in the way of introduction or any explanations as to his motivations. He simply starts walking and takes the reader along with him, making witty comments all the while. Every now and then, he'll see something and his visual imagination will flash the reader through a number of images, like seeing a deer reminds him of the film The Deer Hunter. There are plenty of recurring gags, like singing "I'm Going Down" and finding a half-dozen different ways to refer to Bruce Springsteen. He draws leprechauns, imagines James Joyce and Bono eulogizing him, and pretends to see Jack Nicholson's character from The Shining in a hedge maze. While this is autobiographical, Jason doesn't reveal much about himself. This is a deliberate strategy. This is a finely-crafted set of gags and observations with varied visual backgrounds that provide both reader and artist something new to look at and talk about every few panels.
There are through-lines in O Josephine!, but they are subtle. One of them is Jason's status as a cultural enthusiast. He loves music, films, literature, and poetry. In "L.Cohen: A Life," he expresses this enthusiasm regarding the late singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen by way of a series of absurd anecdotes and "facts." Jason uses a spot yellow to give this fake retrospective of past events an old-time feel, as though one was looking through yellowed newspapers or photographs. He relates Cohen's "encounters" with Federico Garcia Lorca (who taught Cohen the Heimlich maneuver), Allen Ginsberg, Hank Williams, Fidel Castro, and the Beatles. Jason uses a four-panel grid throughout the book, a technique that gives each story the same format and rhythm despite dramatically different subjects. In this story, Jason uses it as a way of landing a series of (literal) punchlines, as Cohen meets someone and inevitably winds up in a fistfight with them. Jason mixes fact and fancy in his narrative, embellishing certain events while confabulating others. All of this is in service to making Cohen a mythological figure whose birth was preordained by Nostradamus, alternating between profundity and silliness. Jason never abandons a through-line, however, and the final panel of this story hooks into the absurd premise established early on. 
The first two stories feature real people, but there's a deliberate act of verisimilitude at work here. The first story is autobiographical, but Jason might as well be anyone here. The second story is a fake biography, affectionately spoofing the life of an artist. However, with the third story in O, Josephine!, "The Diamonds," Jason uses a genre setting to explore a variety of emotional experiences. This is more in line with his earlier books, which used that ever-present deadpan style and off-kilter genre templates to delve into deep, interpersonal stories. "The Diamonds" is a take on sleazy detective stories, where a couple of guys have been hired to stake someone out and get proof of his bad behavior.
Jason often uses a jump-cut narrative approach, leaving narrative gaps for the reader to fill in based on the clues he leaves them. He keeps the reader off-balance, as the mundane practices of the detectives are offset by the heist TV show being watched by the couple they're keeping tabs on. Then Jason cuts to the personal lives of the detectives when they're off-duty, which range from interpersonal family drama to encounters with junkie friends and an actual hostage situation. Jason takes cues from novelist Raymond Carver by way of director Robert Altman here, as there's no single dominant narrative, nor is anyone posited as a morally superior character. They are people living their lives, making bad decisions, and carrying weighty secrets. They love music and TV and spend much of their time together quietly. They hurt each other and themselves through a lack of openness. This is Jason at his best, wringing in a surprising well of emotion through a restrained use of formal techniques over the span of just a few pages.

The title piece, "O Josephine!", is an ahistorical mash-up in the vein of Jason's book The Left Bank Gang. In that book, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. are all cartoonists trying to get published instead of novelists. In "O Josephine!", Napoleon Bonaparte's great romance is with famous dancer & activist Josephine Baker instead of Joséphine de Beauharnais. The most remarkable thing about this story is that beyond the initial chuckles of this time-crossed pairing, Jason plays it entirely straight and transforms it into a bitter romance whose repercussions span generations. "Bo and Jo" are both portrayed as passionate but stubborn people with a profound connection that Napoleon quickly betrays by cheating on Josephine because she wasn't yet ready to sleep with him. 
The primary conflict in the story is over a cat sculpture that Josephine gave Napoleon when they were together, but that he refused to yield when they broke up. That conflict lasts for years, as they eventually involve their children in a proxy war with schemes to steal the statue back or defend it against theft. The pride of Napoleon and Josephine blinds them to everything else, including the love of their children who chafe under their tyrannical parenting. When tragedy results from this conflict, there's an understanding of how pride can metastasize into something destructive and all-consuming. It's why, when he finally comes to her at the end and she asks "Why?", he replies "I don't know" and then "Who knows?" His first reply is, at last, an honest declaration of that malignant pride, while the latter distances himself slightly from his actions, as though it weren't up to him. Jason pulls off a neat trick here by using figures with whom the ideal reader is already familiar (so that he doesn't have to spell out their personalities) and then taking that familiarity to craft a complex, heartbreaking story. 

This is the heart of what has made Jason such a compelling cartoonist over the years. He employs a visual approach that uses iconic, anthropomorphic, funny animal figures. He avoids naturalism because he wants the reader the freedom to interpret the story's events, as well as to give himself the freedom to inject absurd elements without disturbing the story's baseline equilibrium. What's interesting is that even as he uses that anthropomorphic style, he keeps the affect of most of his characters flat instead of going all-out in terms of exaggeration or grotesque stylings. His stylizations are conceptual, built on that cartoony but deadpan visual rock. Given that this formula is only ever altered to add color, it still allows him to tell any kind of story he wants. From gags to observational autobio to tragedy and beyond, Jason's frequently counterintuitive approach often speaks to the most powerful aspects of the human experience.   
Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential,,, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (  

October 6, 2019

Enemies of the State LIVE at SPX -- GIRL TOWN by Casey Nowak

Enemies of the State is a monthly virtual book club discussion on a recently published comic, featuring a rotating cast of comics critics.

This Special Live Episode of Enemies of the State occured at SPX 2019 and features commentary on Casey Nowak’s Girl Town, published by Top Shelf in 2018. Girl Town is a collection of previously published comics ("Girl Town", "Radishes", and "Diana's Electric Tongue" and features two new stories from Nowak, "The Big Burning House" and "Please Sleep Over"). As you can see by the Brick in front of Nowak, the book won an Ignatz Award the prior evening.

The cast for this episode includes the following critics:
Jules Bakes, freelance critic

September 9, 2019

Substitute Life: Rob Clough reviews STUNT by Michael DeForge

Michael DeForge's new book, Stunt, marks the end of an era. A decade ago, Annie Koyama published the first issue of his series Lose, which established him as a major young talent. A decade later, this prodigy's career has been notable for its unpredictability and commitment to constantly evolve. Stunt is DeForge's final book with Koyama before she shutters Koyama Press in 2021 and it's a book that recapitulates many of his career-long themes in a compact, powerful space. DeForge has always been interested in unusual formats and designs for his work, and, true to form, Stunt is printed landscape-style, with dimensions of 8" x 3". It's in black and white with extensive use of blue tones, reflecting that it's set in the world of movies. Not unlike Dan Clowes' Ghost World, the blue indicates the flickering blue light of TV or movies.
This simple story has all of the typical DeForge hallmarks: body horror and dysmorphia, identity warping, bold sexuality, and grappling with the ideas of public vs. private. Setting all of this in Hollywood amplifies these themes. A nameless stuntman is the narrator of Stunt, working on a set with an action blockbuster superstar named Jo Rear. The plot involves the stuntman working with Rear on an action movie shoot, then being flown out to L.A. to act as Rear's full-time body double. The nature of what he does as Rear's replacement gets deeper and weirder as the book proceeds until it concludes in a nihilistic fashion that is entirely consistent with the book's themes. The ways in which their personas shift and warp into each other, focusing more on their bodies than their actual personalities, dominates the visual narrative. The stuntman is very much an unreliable narrator in this regard, understating or ignoring the actual events he is a part of.
DeForge's use of language, though seemingly banal at times, is actually extremely precise. The first line of the book, "I worked as a stunt man. I kept fit." is notable because it's in the past tense and it refers to his body, first and foremost. In the context of the book, the stuntman has no other identity other than being a body. He is not only just a body but an expandable one at that; he fantasizes about dying in a stunt accident, noting right away that he has tried to commit suicide before but failed. So he remains "open" to accidents, but one dark fantasy of his is that instead of dying in a failed stunt, the actual star of the movie dies instead. He achieves a moment of fame only because everyone blames him, but at least he takes solace in knowing that he was on camera in replacing the star.
The bulk of the book, wherein the stuntman is Jo Rear's body double, is indeed a kind of "stunt": a prank, or a piece of performance art. If the stuntman wants to kill himself, then Rear wants to commit career suicide. In neither instance is it revealed why they want things to end, just that they do. The duo prove to be perfect collaborators, as the stuntman doesn’t have the agency to kill himself, and the actor doesn’t have the courage to end his own career. He is used to having people step in for him and do his dirty work, so why stop now? He is an actor, after all, used to pretending. The stuntman finds the experience freeing and exhilarating, as he is willing to go to extreme lengths to pull off the sort of public stunts that draw outrage.
The themes of duality, obsession, and the idea of two people somehow combining to form one all remind me of the Ingmar Bergman film Persona. Some of the plot details are different, but there's a lot that's similar. In some ways, Stunt perhaps acknowledges that influence and deliberately moves its tone in a funnier but equally dark direction. Persona is a film about the relationship between two women (an actress and her nurse caretaker) who are in isolation together. Childbirth is at the heart of the central conflict, as one woman has a child but doesn’t want him while the other woman desperately wants to have a child. In that isolation, and because of their physical similarity, there is an attraction between them that is narcissistic. It is an obsession with one's own self or falling in love with a slightly warped mirror version of oneself. In both cases, there is a hierarchy in place; Persona's actress is famous and has a child, and the nurse is clearly in a servile role. In Stunt, Jo Rear is a famous actor, and the stuntman is there because he's been hired to do a job. In both cases, the servants transcend their relationships to some extent in the way that their bosses come to be obsessed with them, or rather obsessed with them because they are obsessed with their own reflections. They are also obsessed with the other person because they see the possibilities of a different life path in them. In Stunt, you also have someone who yearns to create in the stuntman vs. someone who rejects being a creative force altogether.
At a certain point in Stunt, Jo Rear gets what he wants. His plan of total public degradation almost backfires, as the public grows more interested when they think it is a publicity stunt (and with the antics of actors like Joaquin Phoenix and Charlie Sheen, anything is possible). Eventually, the public loses interest. At that point, all that's left are the actor and the stuntman, and all they have to do together is "work on our bodies." This is one of many clever turns of phrase with multiple meanings from DeForge. The duo does indeed completely abandon the life of the mind and creativity in favor of exercise (an act the stuntman earlier refers to as "beating my body into submission"), but that later sequence features the stuntman's banal, dispassionate narration with ten pages of them having passionate sex. They are "working on their bodies" in more ways than one, but the question remains as to what it means. Is this a genuine connection, or more an act of masturbation?
In the end, when Jo Rear chooses his final stunt to be his suicide, the stuntman is happy to go along with it. He's not even getting paid but he "was more than happy to work for exposure." I laughed out loud at that line, one of many dark laughs in Stunt because DeForge is riffing on the idea of artists working for so-called exposure instead of getting paid. However, all the stuntman craves at that point was exposure; he wants an audience, to be thought of as creative. In the final frame, the stuntman knows that he's been cheated out of everything he wants. It may be his death, but he's been robbed even of that agency since everyone assumes it's Jo's: "In my last few moments, I pictured the scene: Oh, how I wished it was me! If it could only be me...!"
DeForge's work fuses many genres, but psychological and body horror have always been his main areas of interest. Persona was described as a "psychological horror" film, and that's very much the case here, albeit frequently leavened by humor, satire, and DeForge's well-developed sense of the absurd. The twisting, warped character of his line defies the "beautiful people" aspect of Hollywood, but DeForge is careful to capture the visceral, sweaty quality of the bodies of the main characters, sometimes to the point where they are no longer identifiable as actual people, just a mass of "knotted muscle and pools of sweat", which happened to be the ultimate suicide fantasy for the stuntman. The only imperative that the actor ever gives him is to "keep fit." Neither one of them is ever recognized for their inner lives: one is just a face, the other just a body. Neither makes choices to assert themselves otherwise in any kind of positive way, which brings us to the book's most essential theme: the traps in which mental illness can ensnare us. The stuntman is deeply depressed and suicidal, and he is only alive because he doesn’t feel he has the ability to kill himself. The actor is also clearly depressed and feels trapped by his life, but he is also a sociopath. Instead of taking responsibility for his actions, he literally takes the life (in all sense of the term) of another to escape. To where, and to do what? It doesn’t matter. This is another level of the horror of the book: that the actor is a sucking void of nihilistic narcissism and that the stuntman is sucked up into it.
Stunt is a fitting farewell for DeForge's work with Koyama Press. While it is a visceral, uncomfortable experience to read, DeForge's sense of restraint never sees him overplaying his hand. One can see DeForge's evolution as an artist at work in Stunt, because while his early work was powerful, he also tended to let the reader have it with both barrels. Every work since has been subtler and more refined in terms of its themes and execution, even as his art has become more abstract and grotesque. DeForge's work has become increasingly ambiguous, especially with regard to his stories' resolutions. While carefully crafting his narratives to create certain kinds of reactions, DeForge always leaves room for the reader to interpret the work on any number of levels. Stunt's horror is effective precisely because it is unsettling on psychological, existential, and emotional levels.
Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential,,, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (

September 6, 2019

What if the Ball Never Came Back? Matt Vadnais on the Zen of Bowling in BIG DRINK by Max Huffman

Given that bowling has been pushed to the periphery of the hobby landscape, it’s surprising to tally up the number of texts, including The Big Lebowski, Kingpin, and Camper Van Beethoven’s absurdist, college-radio hit, “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” that recommends, to various degrees of seriousness, bowling as a metaphor for living.  Upon reflection, the pastime does lend itself to a variety of nihilistic aphorisms about repeated, fruitless tasks done in the name of forgetting other repeated, fruitless tasks. To bowl is to be Sisyphus in serial, rolling the rock again and again in situations that change but remain identical from city to city and year to year. “Some people say,” the Camper Van Beethoven song goes, “that bowling alleys all look the same.” That’s not quite true, though: bowling alleys all smell the same, an alluring and upsetting perfume of wax and oft-borrowed shoes. That sameness is part of its allure. Like smoking or any other self-medication, bowling is a controlled repetition that serves a variety of functions; it can be done to connect to others, to withdraw into the self, to celebrate a promotion at work, or to distract from a job that’s going nowhere.
If bowling is not the central metaphor of Max Huffman's Big Drink – a self-published comic in the same tongue-in-wiseass register as Camper Van Beethoven’s oeuvre – it is definitely its leitmotif. The bulk of its action is set in a bowling alley where protagonist Gloria mops lanes, sprays shoes, and cleans vomit out of the ball return before encountering a cadre of voluntary trepanists who intentionally drill what amounts to a thumbhole in their skulls. More to the point, Gloria appears to be struggling with something like depression or dissociation where repeated mundane tasks combine to constitute an endless task. She drinks enough meaningless sodas – often spiked with alcohol – that the containers pile in the backseat of the car she occasionally naps in; other than an establishment the reader sees very early on, this pile of cups is as close as we get to a “big drink” in Big Drink. The drink is one that is consumed over time.  

Though depression comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, I am particularly interested in depictions that focus on the particular oppression of tasks that must be undertaken so that they can be repeated. Dishes must be washed so they can be dirtied. The floor must be mopped so it can be dirtied. Pins must be knocked down so they can be set up again. One rolls the ball. The ball is returned.
Huffman leans into this particular kind of dissociative read without making it the explicit subject matter of the comic. Big Drink’s art borrows heavily, at least in places, from mid-career Picasso, severing, bifurcating, and rearranging faces in a space-defying contortion. Additionally, Huffman uses a narrative structure that forces readers to connect the dots, weaving together a number of scenes without providing a clear sense of what Gloria wants or what the stakes are, beyond, of course, surviving the repetition of days in which her own sense of meaning and purpose is not abundantly clear. Moments of life her life flash as meta-textual cartoons on the closest-circuit TV possible, the bowling alley scoreboard, where they are watched by a coworker who asks, “You ever notice they never repeat the cartoons?

Finally, I am inclined to understand Big Drink in the context of depression because it is ultimately about trepanning. While I am not entirely familiar with the “uses” of drilling a hole in one’s skull, I do know that purported benefits of doing so include increased blood and brain volume that provides a potential relief for depression. Furthermore, Huffman presents the group that welcomes Gloria with open arms – the third hole of their skulls drawn in the position one might find the third eye – in the visual language of a support group. Whatever exactly they are offering, they all seem to have needed it too.
In the context of a truly bizarre plot twist – one I won’t give away – that is as triumphant and joyous as it is befuddling, it should also be remembered that voluntarily boring a hole in one’s skull probably qualifies as self-harm. That said, the comic treats trepanning with a light touch and none of the gore one finds in Joyce Carol Oates’s harrowing short story, “A Hole in the Head.”
It is striking that, despite the subject matter and numerous invitations Huffman provides to contemplate weighty issues, Big Drink is drawn with a kinetic and stylish playfulness. Likewise, Huffman riffs on a number of comedic set pieces, including a montage of hipster archetypes and an homage to a the WKRP in Cincinnati episode in which Les Nessman arranges for turkeys to be flung from an airplane – here, of course, it is bowling balls that can’t possibly fly – in a joke that is completed by the visual reminder on the scoreboard that three strikes in a row is a turkey. These elements, though, contribute to Huffman’s treatment of Gloria’s quest for meaning and purpose by landing in such a way that she’s never in on the joke. Despite its mania and energy, Big Drink’s funniest moments come off – and I mean this as a compliment – like a sitcom laugh track augmenting an otherwise serious production of Hamlet.
I left the comic unsettled in a way that feels productive; Huffman ends the story with a scene that is ambiguous but not incomplete or unsatisfying, suggesting that, one way or the other, Gloria has found a way to stop thinking about the dishes that always need to be washed and a backseat that always needs to be emptied of the detritus resulting from the constant consumption of small portions of the big drink. Though I finished the comic knowing far more about what she was escaping than where she was escaping to, the final, inscrutable moments of this story are memorable and, in and of themselves, a worthy escape from my own serialized and inescapable mundanity.

Matt Vadnais has taught college literature and creative writing classes for twenty years. He is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver and a contributor at For more comics coverage and the occasional tweet about Shakespeare, follow him @DoctorFanboi. For short takes on longboxes, subscribe to his channel of video essays. 

September 5, 2019

Tears Of A Clown: Rob Clough reviews RAT TIME by Keiler Roberts

There is a subtle tonal shift in Keiler Roberts' latest collection of autobiographical vignettes, Rat Time (Koyama Press). That tone is slightly lighter than many of her other books, especially with regard to her own life. In previous comics, when Roberts wrote much more about her daughter Xia, those segments usually proved to be comic relief (with some darker overtones), as opposed to the often darker explorations of her own life (with comedic overtones). Now that her daughter's older, she's still an important part of Roberts' supporting cast, but subjects like toileting, bath time, and malapropisms are no longer the focus. Roberts has written extensively about post-partum depression, having bipolar disorder, and her recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. One gets the sense that in Rat Time, Roberts is almost tired of talking about these topics and prefers instead to unleash her hilariously deadpan sense of humor on page after page.
Opening with a few pages of the sort of minute observations that she does so well, Roberts introduces the reader to the narrative and emotional crux of the book: purchasing pet rats for her daughter Xia. Roberts loves animals, and there are several pages of tender, loving, and sincere depictions of Roberts and Xia playing with and loving on their fuzzy new friends. This allows Roberts to segue into a hilarious sequence of her discussing a supposed TED talk about rats that builds on a reasonable premise and escalates into increasingly silly assertions. The sincere affection she has for her new pets makes this joke all the more effective, as she takes that warmth and redirects it to humor unexpectedly.
After about twenty pages of this rat-based humor, Roberts casually drops this bombshell: "I got the rats because I wanted to stop thinking about MS. They were a kind of alternative medicine--something to love and be optimistic about." This is one of only three times Roberts mentions MS in Rat Time, a dramatic contrast from Chlorine Gardens' focus on the process of getting her diagnosis. One gets the sense that Rat Time, in general, is Roberts' way of not thinking about MS and the ways it affected her life -- especially her ability to create art. While Roberts has always been willing to talk about her medical issues and mental health, it just seems clear that in Rat Time she doesn’t want the focus of her work to be her pathologies.
Instead, Rat Time is about embarrassment, awkwardness, and humiliation. There's a sequence where a friend talks about thinking about going to clown school and defines a clown as someone who, "when faced with a problem, goes deeper into it." Problems escalate and compound on each other for humorous, cringe-worthy effect. This speaks to the Yiddish concepts of schlemiel and schlimazel: the clumsy clown who drops things and the unlucky person who constantly has bad things happen to them, respectively. Rat Time is all about Roberts' experience being both, especially in a public and performative sense. 
At home, there are sequences where Roberts disastrously tries to make hot chocolate and pancakes, respectively. The latter is especially hilarious, as Roberts compounds a single error (over-oiling the pan) into a series of pratfalls, burned food, smoke alarms, and burns. An attempt at cooking two things at once fails and results in Roberts storming off in a rage. Best of all was Roberts needing just a moment of privacy to change her tampon while three-year-old Xia was banging on the door, resulting in a mess, yelling, and a crying child. Roberts' willingness to portray herself as the "Keiler Monster" (as described by Xia, referring to how much Roberts hates traveling) is bold because she makes no apologies for her behavior on the page. However, this makes her a perfect vehicle for this humor of anxiety, making her a sympathetic figure even as she plays up how badly she behaves. The difference between her and a clown is that the clown at least has makeup, funny shoes, and a silly wig to indicate that we should laugh at them, while Roberts deliberately leaves the audience hanging with tonal ambiguity.
Roberts sharply explores social awkwardness in other ways in Rat Time. There's a sequence where she relates being massively underprepared to teach an art class, putting up an image of the Pieta`, telling her class "Let's all just look at it for a few minutes." Roberts makes it even more excruciating by noting that there seems to be a single student "rooting for me to pull it together." Roberts digs the knife in a little further when she reveals that the student dropped the class the next day. Roberts sells the scene by making her loose, expressive, and spontaneous line a little more lush and detailed than usual. The key detail is her wearing a blazer to indicate her gravity as an instructor, which makes her lack of preparation seem even worse.
The loose structure of the book allows Roberts to spring these kinds of stories on the reader while alternating them with more conventional, quotidian anecdotes and even full-page illustrations. A loose set of strips about teaching and being taught goes back and forth from her experiences as a teacher and understanding how embarrassing it can be to draw in public, to recalling times she had been humiliated by teachers in high school. Roberts has an uncanny knack for weaving together multiple emotional and narrative through-lines, blending them into each other and using quick call-backs to reestablish themes.
For example, there's a strip about her knocking over and breaking a jar of nail polish when she comes out of the shower. Roberts loves depicting being naked as a way to further establish awkwardness in comedic situations. After cleaning up, she writes in a "gratitude journal" how she is grateful for not getting glass on her feet, that she can buy another jar of polish, etc. Then on the next page, she reveals there is no gratitude journal and makes up entries in her head. The final panel is a reference to depression, one of the few in the book, and it segues neatly into the second half of the book.
That begins with a sequence about crying; Roberts has noted that she cries all the time, often for no reason. A group she's with gives her a patch for her pencil case that says "I cry every day". Ever subverting the narrative, she notes in the strip that she hasn't yet cried that day, to which a friend answers, "There's still time." That's a great gag, but it also points to a real truth with regard to the way she often feels a lack of control of her feelings. Just as Roberts makes her funny stories uncomfortable by adding a tinge of sadness or a reference to illness, so too does she go in the opposite direction and lightens the expected weightiness of the discussion of mental illness in some strips.
That said, the second half of the book is more downbeat and reflective than the first. The humor is subtler and more time is spent in particular on interactions with her parents and family, as well as reflecting on the importance of certain routines in her life. They're more reminiscent of her earlier strips in this regard, but there's a depth with regard to her relationship with her parents that she didn't quite attempt in her older work. Roberts isn't digging at trauma here, but rather remembering certain silly past events and old habits that she hadn't considered or shared much before.
It's all a part of the marvelous tensions of her working method. While her art is bolder and more detailed than ever, she still maintains an essential looseness and spontaneity designed to make the reader feel like an invited guest and observer. While the storytelling structure feels freer and more inclined to comedy, Roberts finds ways to tie back into the book's essential themes. While the book seems at first to be less personally revealing, Roberts pulls back the curtain from time to time to reveal that there is a lot under the surface that she’s not discussing openly. Roberts has expressed that, above all else, she doesn't want to bore people with her accounts of having bipolar, and I imagine the same is true for MS. I think another thing at work here is that Roberts doesn't want her medical conditions to hijack her own narratives.
That's something that sets Roberts' work apart from the sort of thing that Ellen Forney does with regard to bipolar disorder or any number of artists who talk about cancer or other serious illnesses. Those books are about the illness more than they are the person. We only get to know the person by way of the disease, and the narrative almost always serves that end. That said, Roberts still throws in occasional reminders to let the reader know that nothing has changed: Roberts' mental and physical challenges are still there, but she's much more than those challenges. Finding a way to create a sense of hope, warmth, and meaning in her life through the pet rats, seeing her daughter increasingly as a creative force of her own, and passing on kindness to her students is as important as the humor.
First and foremost, Roberts is an entertainer. She wants to make her audience laugh, but she also wants those laughs to sting a little. Like any good clown, she will dive further into her problems until we laugh, even if she has to cry to make it happen. With Rat Time, Keiler Roberts has given herself permission to go all-out in an attempt to be funny, knowing that her commitment to emotional honesty and deep sincerity will keep her and her readers grounded in reality.
Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential,,, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (

September 4, 2019

When the Myth Overtakes the Man: Tom Shapira reviews DREAMERS OF THE DAY by Beth Barnett

Michael Korda’s 2011 biography of Thomas Edward “T.E.” Lawrence is called Hero. This leaves little doubt about Korda’s opinion of his subject matter. Lawrence, of course, already had all the historical amplifying one could ask for. As the subject of the much-admired film Lawrence of Arabia, which indeed painted him as romantic (if often naïve) heroic figure, his place in history is assured. But real people aren’t usually heroes, especially real people making tough decisions on a global scale. War is never clean-cut, and World War I, and the way is shaped modern-day Middle East, is an especially murky affair.
Beth Barnetts new graphic novel, Dreamers of the Day, struggles exactly with this notion. Partly a story of the author’s time in England spending many a-happy-day lost in college libraries, and partly the story of Lawrence himself, Barnettdigs further and further into the facts of Lawrence’s life. By doing so, she finds herself projecting into the man and the emotional distance between student and subject narrows to a thin thread. An early page showcases a flattering portrait of Lawrence superimposed above a desert shot evoking the grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia with several speech bubbles pointing out the man’s many vocations – “archeologist,” “soldier,” “aircraftsman,” “translator,” “book designer” etc. That’s a list of qualification worthy of any polymath.
Yet the following page immediately sets a contrast with the view of Lawrence as a greater than life figure: eyebrows raised in a questioning manner, mouth slightly downturned, he seems so unsure of himself. By Barnett’s next drawing, the mood has soured completely – Lawrence’s head is turned low, his eyes seemingly about the weep. Here is not a legendary figure of bravery and endurance, but a real-life person, nearly incapacitated by the weight of his past decisions. Barnett’s simple and flowing style, a few lines on the page, no bothering with border panels, allows her to capture the emotion of such scene plainly – the reader can always tell what the characters are going through.
Dreamers of the Day is far from an exercise in fawning adoration (though Barnett is often very adoring in her depictions) or even a simple study of a fascinating figure. Instead, the graphic novel quickly becomes a study of its own process, asking questions of both the writer and the reader: how do we think of these grand historical figures? What happens when we cross the line from study to panegyric? Is it even possible to avoid projecting onto a subject when your work is their life? Halfway through the book, Barnett touches upon the subject of sexual identity, noting she has her own opinions (based on what she had read) regarding Lawrence’s preferences. Barnett explains that the idea of him as an asexual person was important to her, that she needed to hear about a person whose lack of desire for sexual intimacy did not diminish him as a person in the public’s perception. Yet, while unpacking that theory, she keeps in mind that just because this notion was important to her does not necessarily make it so.  
If there is an underlying theme to Lawrence’s story throughout Dreamers of the Day it is the idea that people are complex, and someone like T.E. Lawrence is doubly so. Trying to put him in any one box is bound to fail. Trying to make him into a ‘war hero,’ to view him as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is diminishing, because it was just one part of a long and varied life. By showing the reader the different (or ignored) aspects of the man’s life, with particular care given to exploring his interest and work in the field of book design,  Barnett gives both a fuller image of Lawrence’s life as well as the understanding that no picture could ever be full. You cannot ‘capture’ a life in text, the map is not territory, you can only approach it carefully.
As the book progresses, Barnett becomes freer in her drawings, moving from direct character shots, playing with portraits, maps, scenery, etc. This gives the book a free-flowing feeling that matches its subject well, refusing to limit itself to a single mood of expression. It also gives the reader some wonderful imagery that manages to pack so much into so little.   
Lawrence’s case is especially fitting for the larger questions Barnett is interested in, not just because he spent the last years of his life in what seems like an effort to remain an enigma, but mostly due to how he came to view the exploits that made him famous. Apparently, they were the cause of much shame later in his life, especially with the way the British abused their Arab allies after they were done using them to defeat the Turks. The violence he meted out during his time in the war, including personally executing a man, seems to weigh heavy on him early on and the weight of it appears the grow the more he is unable to justify the reasons for the war
The most fascinating, and challenging, aspect of Dreamers of the Day is reserved for the halfway point of the graphic novel: it turns out that later in his life T.E. Lawrence took up a new name, ‘T.E. Shaw,’ which he used for over 12 years until his untimely death. Despite that, he is referred throughout the whole book as ‘Lawrence,’ as the people who buried him did. He was buried as T.E. Lawrence (there’s a straightforward image of his grave that is quite moving in this context), and that remains the name under which he is known.
Barnett makes the valid point that this type of refitting historical people into easy-to-comprehend models is ‘uncaring,’ another way in which mythologizing a person is an act of destruction. Here is a man, a man of multitudes, who ends up trapped against his will in his own myth. The scholar and book lover T.E. Shaw became the war hero and dashing figure ‘T.E. Lawrence’ against his will. Barnett has to do this, despite knowing it’s the ‘wrong’ choice, because no one would know who T.E. Shaw is. This makes Dreamers of the Day like Sisyphus, pushing a rock up the hill of popular history (not because it could be done, but because it needs to be done).
In Dreamers of the Day the reader learns, again and again, that the writing of  history must be an act of conscious decision making and of understanding, that we cannot mold people of the past into what we want them to be; we must try and perceive them for what they were – all of it, or none at all. 
As the book draws to a close with a promise of further T.E. Lawrence (or is it ‘Shaw’?) related material to come, I considered some of the minor flaws (it really does love Lawrence a bit too much, so great were his charms and demeanor); but then I considered all the different illustrations of this one man throughout the book – all the different ways it let me see this figure. And this is what such a study should be, not a singular dominating vision, but an offering of different angles, of the endless varieties of life.
Tom Shapira is a freelance critic writing about comics for Haaretz, The Comics Journal, Multiversity, Sequart, and others. He is also the author of Curing the Postmodern Blues: Reading Grant Morrison and Chris Weston's The Filth in the 21st Century (Sequart Press, 2013).