The death of parents, an inevitability that is an inconceivability to children, has been a dominant theme of the great pop- literature form invented for kids: the comics. Superman, the prototype of the comic- book hero, had as his origin myth a pulpy story that hung on the demise of his parents and their whole world: a couple of young married Kryptonians, Jor-El and Lara, blast their baby son Kal-El to Earth in a rocket ship just as their planet explodes. The author of this majestically juvenile allegory, Jerry Siegel, had lost his own father, the proprietor of a haberdashery in Cleveland, when real-life bad guys robbed his store and he had a heart attack. Batman, as we know from his origin tale, was a rich boy who vowed to fight crime after watching his parents get gunned down in an alley on their way home from a family night at the movies. Batman’s sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, was an orphan, too, and so were Spider-Man and Captain Marvel. In the case of all these heroes and others in the comics, the trauma of premature and permanent separation from parents was a character- defining event, a cruelly propitious act that established the heroes’ exceptionalism and their lifelong sense of aloneness in the universe, while forcing them into the condition that all young people covet and fear almost as much as they dread the loss of their parents: adulthood of their own.
In the newspaper funny pages, where the comics medium was born, parents have always been largely or wholly absent from the humor strips centered on children—think of Peanuts, Nancy, Little Lulu, or any other strip named for kid characters—in order to maintain the point of view of young people and to facilitate the poking of fun at the grown-up world. With the notable exceptions of Nancy and her boy pal Sluggo, most of the kids in the humor strips were not orphans literally, but children liberated from adult oversight. (Nancy lived with her Aunt Fritzi, a detached semi-presence—a sexy former flapper who had originally been the main character of the strip; and Sluggo lived all alone, with no adults, in a ramshackle house that was a terrifically weird realization of every child’s daydream of independence in a place that called for the doing of no chores.) In the funnies, kids have always tended to behave not only as if there were no adults in their lives; they have also acted (or at least talked) like adults themselves, serving simultaneously as objects of fantasy for young readers who see grown-ups as obstructions or irrelevancies and for adults looking for escape in the jokey playland of comic-strip childhood.
It was in the serious continuity strips, which have nearly disappeared from the newspaper comics as shrinking space has reduced the size of strips to that of microfilm, where orphaned children were once among the most popular characters. There was little Annie Warbucks, of course, and also Dondi, the woeful immigrant from fascist Italy who fell in with all sorts of noirish creeps in the first couple of decades after World War II. In the dramatic shorthand of the comics, their identities as orphans established Annie and Dondi as both stalwartly independent and wounded—objects of both envy and sympathy for readers engaged in their stories for the duration of one or two minutes each morning. If, as characters, they seemed cartoonish, all the better. They were, after all, cartoons.
Out of this heritage, the graphic novel movement emerged with the relationship between children and their parents among its primary concerns. The book now commonly regarded as the first graphic novel, A Contract with God, first published in 1978, had at the center of its collage of related narratives the story of a man, a Jewish tenement dweller in a time around the turn of the twentieth century, who unravels after the death of his beloved young daughter and feels betrayed by God (his heavenly father). The author and artist of this book, the insatiably ambitious comics innovator Will Eisner, for whom the annual awards for comics and graphic novels are named, had lost his own daughter to leukemia when she was sixteen. (A Contract with God actually had several lesser-known antecedents, including a book-length comics melodrama titled It Rhymes with Lust, written by the talented hacks Leslie Waller and Arnold Drake, and drawn by the underappreciated comics artist Matt Baker, who was also one of the first African Americans to publish a syndicated comic strip, Flamingo. Published in 1950, It Rhymes with Lust was a salty potboiler conceived for adults decades before there was a market of adults prepared to buy such a thing.)
With Maus, the Holocaust testament originally serialized in the comic book Raw over the years 1980–1991, Art Spiegelman took on a pair of daunting subjects, one monumental and historical, one personal and contemporary at the time of the book’s writing: in the foreground of the book, the extermination of the Jews under the Third Reich, and in the background, the author’s relationship with his father, Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jew who had survived internment at Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and Dachau. The book’s dual narratives are at times running parallel, at times interlaced, and at times knotted up, and the themes of death and parental identity are tightly entwined. After all, to consider Vladek Spiegelman as a Holocaust survivor is to define him by death. The purpose of the death camps was death, the evasion of which marked the elder Spiegelman as exceptional.
Six years before he started the book we know as Maus, Spiegelman published a piece of three pages, also titled Maus, based on his recollections of his father’s accounts of the Holocaust, with the now-famous device of depicting Jews (including Art and Vladek Spiegelman) as mice and Nazis as cats. After this publication, Spiegelman decided to delve deeper into this material, and he started conducting interviews with his aging father in tape-recorded sessions that he came to portray in some of the most personal and emotionally nuanced segments of Maus. We see the weakening Vladek Spiegelman, through the eyes of his adult son, as prideful, cagey, intolerant, depleted, controlling, and sentimental, and find ourselves challenged to grasp his Holocaust testimony through the filters of his pride, his weaknesses, and the strengths that, along with some fortuitous turns of fortune and lucky timing, helped him survive the camps. In the interviews that the son conducted with his father, Vladek Spiegelman attempted to explain the Holocaust as he experienced it, and we see, in Maus, how the Holocaust explained Vladek Spiegelman as his son experienced him. (Anja Spiegelman, Vladek’s wife and Art’s mother, was also interned in the camps and figures intermittently in Maus; she suffered from mental illness throughout her life and committed suicide in 1968, when Art Spiegelman was twenty.)
As a treatment of Holocaust history, Maus was innovative and effective. But as a son’s intimate inquiry into the way his father (and to a lesser degree, his mother) dealt with the threat and the eventual arrival of death, Maus is something more than history; it is a work of raw and oblique poetry in words and pen-and-ink sketches. In the final drawing on the last page of the book, Art Spiegelman drew his parents’ tombstone. He had nothing more to say.
Like Maus, the much lauded graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, called Fun Home, is an attempt by a gifted comics artist and writer to come to terms with a parent—in her case, her closeted gay father, who ran a funeral home that the book’s title has some fun with. Like Spiegelman, Bechdel tells a pair of enlaced stories: one, of the arabesques through which her father repressed, repurposed, and not-always- secretly accommodated his homosexuality or bisexuality; the other, of Bechdel’s far more assured and direct emergence as a lesbian. In the one moment of their lives when they actually talked together about their homosexual experiences, a tentative conversation in a car ride, it was the daughter who did the parenting. As she recalled in the book’s text, “Which of us was the father? I had felt distinctly parental listening to his shamefaced recitation.”
As with Maus, again, death hovers over the proceedings, with much of the book formed by Bechdel’s memories of the time around her father’s sudden death under circumstances open to interpretation. He was run over by a truck as he crossed a rural road. Bechdel suspected a suicide disguised as well as her father’s homosexuality.
With both Maus and Fun Home as inspirations, countless artists and writers have no doubt thought of doing graphic memoirs of their relationships with their parents. Two years ago, Bechdel herself published a book as a follow-up to Fun Home called Are You My Mother?, a cerebral but turgid and indulgent book about her tortured relationship with her still-living mother. Over the past several years, I have thought fairly seriously about writing a book about my own parents’ miserable descent into decrepitude, senescence, and the interminably protracted shutting-down—the long dying—that death is for most aged, ill people who are not run over by trucks. My mother died three years ago, and on the day of her death my father made his way to the roof of their building to jump and join her. A police team talked him down. Then things got harder and darker and weirder for him and for me. I thought that the cartoon format would help offset the grimness of the events, while also serving the black comedy of my father’s final years in a Dickensian county nursing home.
Apart from the possible value to me as therapy, there would no point in my writing such a book now, because it has been done exquisitely well by Roz Chast, the artist and writer best known for the cheeky, deceptively naïve-looking cartoons that she has been making for The New Yorker since 1978. Chast has published more than half a dozen compilations of her cartoons, as well as a few other illustrated books. They are all clever and consistently funny and a kick to look at. Chast has a keen eye for the small horrors of everyday life, particularly life in New York. Her work has always felt bluntly personal, literally drawn from her experience. But she has never before done a full-blown memoir, and nothing she has made prior to this has had the heart and the poignancy of her new book. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is every bit as smart and as human as Fun Home, in its unaffected, goofball way, and it is considerably funnier than most other seriously good graphic books.
The title phrase neatly captures the reluctance to deal with the unpleasantries of late life familiar to most of us who have dealt with aging, fading loved ones. I could not convince my mother to visit an assisted- living facility until three days before she died, and she refused to consider moving there or, for that matter, to refer to it by name. Chast’s parents—her mother, a fiery former assistant principal in an elementary school, and her father, a timorous retired high school English teacher—were in their nineties and still living in the same apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn (“DEEP Brooklyn,” as Chast calls it) where Roz Chast had grown up when they started falling onto the floor and forgetting to turn off the stove.
Chast, an only child, had moved as an adult from New York City to Connecticut. The emotional distance between her parents and her surpassed the mileage. She came home to see them for the first time in eleven years, and forced herself to start figuring out how to help her parents survive the traumatic, tedious, and expensive process of confronting death. She moved them into an elder-care facility near her house in Connecticut, which her parents called “the place.”
Chast makes herself no superhero in this tale of mutual reluctance and shared family dread. She is upfront about her ambivalence about taking on the demands of care for parents to whom she had never, even as a child, felt closely connected. She conveys this with clever efficiency on one page in a takeoff of a Gallant and Goofus chart, “The Daughter-Caretaker Edition.” Under the “Gallant” Roz Chast, sketched with a halo overhead, we find: “Doesn’t worry about the money, because if it runs out, she would be thrilled to have them come live with her!” And under the “Goofus” Chast, drawn with red horns on her head: “The idea of her parents living under her roof makes her want to lie down and take a very, very, very, very, very, very long nap.”
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is slyly literary. Chast knew what she was doing when she gingerly laced the theme of death through the book. Early on, when her parents chat about their views on religion, they focus on the afterlife. The family yarns we hear about Chast’s parents’ ancestors are mostly about tragedy and death, and the “cautionary tales” that Chast remembers being taught as a girl are all tales of doom: “Friend’s husband killed by falling flower pot,” “Guy who almost died playing oboe,” and “A rash, then dead.”
Chast’s book is deliciously funny and, at the same time, sober and true. It is steeped in the kind of family love that I can recognize: love inseparable from confusion, frustration, resentment, and high costs of many kinds. Like Maus and Fun Home, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a book about the relationship between grown children and their parents that represents the comics art itself in full maturation. By the end of the book, as in the end of Maus, the parents are gone, and their comic-artist offspring is left alone, trying to act like a grown-up while making funny little study-hall doodles. The natural order of the comics has been restored.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic.