Every Rectangular Panel is One Little Moment: How Comics Helped Me Cope with Grief, a guest post by Will Betke-Brunswick
One of the things I love most about comics is that they have to be specific. I can’t just say, “My mom was reading in bed,” I have to show her reading in bed. And if I show her reading in bed, I have to draw what she was reading, since I can’t leave the cover of the book blank. If my sister and I are eating dinner while talking about summer jobs, a reader sees that my sister was the one bringing the pan from the stove to the table, and that we were eating broccoli that night.
The themes of my graphic memoir A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings are art, memory, love, math, growing up, puzzles, gender, death, and family. These are all big life topics (except maybe puzzles) and the only way I can understand them is through specific moments.
My mom died thirteen years ago. I have a hard time talking about our relationship in general terms. It was… everything? I started with a specific time frame—the ten months between her cancer diagnosis and her death. I was a sophomore in college, playing ice hockey, majoring in math, and hoping to study abroad during my junior year. My mom was an occupational therapy professor at a community college, swimming before work and taking art classes after work. When we realized she was sick, I left school and she left work, and we spent those ten months together.
Ten months still felt like a long time. I zeroed in even further, examining specific memories and moments during those ten months: When the chemo made blueberries taste like ball bearings to my mom. When we walked the halls of the oncology floor ranking the hospital art. When my mom helped me make Alice in Wonderland-themed puppets for a math presentation. Those individual moments created the structure for the book, and a starting point to expand and see the larger themes. Making math puppets reminded me of my mom giving me math problems to quell my anxiety on the bus in middle school. Suddenly, I had expanded the timeline to include flashbacks from growing up! While my mom and dad were getting a second opinion, my sister and I spent the time doing puzzles. Sister! Dad! Now I had doubled the number of characters in the book.
The book became a big thing made of small things. Which is the only way I know how to understand those abstract noun themes. In calculus, you find the area under a graph by dividing up the space into infinitely small rectangles and then adding them all up. Just like a comic! Every rectangular panel is one little moment. (My high school yearbook quote was from this chapter in my calculus textbook; this is a metaphor that has really stuck with me.) Individual panels give a reader a sense of time or place or half a sentence. But when you put them all together, the broccoli, the hospital art, the ice hockey games, the puzzles, there is a story about love and death and growing up.
Meet the author
Will Betke-Brunswick is the author of A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings. Will is a cartoonist and a recent graduate of the California College of the Arts MFA in Comics program. Will’s work has appeared in the new print edition of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves; How to Wait: An Anthology of Transition; and the websites INTO and Autostraddle. A former high school math teacher, Will lives in Colorado.
About A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings
During Will Betke-Brunswick’s sophomore year of college, their beloved mother, Elizabeth, is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. They only have ten more months together, which Will documents in evocative two-color illustrations. But as we follow Will and their mom through chemo and hospital visits, their time together is buoyed by laughter, jigsaw puzzles, modern art, and vegan BLTs. In a delightful twist, Will portrays their family as penguins, and their friends are cast as a menagerie of birds. In between therapy and bedside chats, they navigate uniquely human challenges, as Will prepares for math exams, comes out as genderqueer, and negotiates familial tension.
A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings is an act of loving others and loving oneself, offering a story of coming-of-age, illness, death, and life that announces the arrival of a talented storyteller in Will Betke-Brunswick. At its heart, Will’s story is a celebration of a mother-child relationship filled with unconditional devotion, humor, care, and openness.
Publisher: Tin House Books
Publication date: 11/15/2022
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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