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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

My mother died last month, so I can now fill in the open space in those horrifying parentheses. She suffered from advanced Alzheimer’s for the last year and a half, so that gap, that blank area within her closed identity, felt especially apt, an absence at her purgatorial core. Which is why my first reaction after her death was relief.

My second was to make comics. I’ve spent my life composing in prose, but the interplay of words and pictures and the peculiar gaps and overlays of the comics form feels right for working through the meanings of my mother. I began exploring image-texts after her diagnosis too, so the form is already infused with the fragmented logic of Alzheimer’s for me. All memories are simplified and warped. Cartoons make that literal. And gutters are the defining structure of sequences, the bottomless open spaces readers have to endlessly bridge.

So below is a three page comic I made after driving to Williamsburg to clean out her assisted living apartment with my sister and brother-in-law. Her body had already been cremated. The text may be difficult to read in this format, so I’ll include it first as a free-standing block of prose.

“After the funeral home picked up her body, my brother-in-law took snapshots of the room, in case something went missing, like the TV or the paintings. He showed them to me while we were looking at her ashes on their kitchen table.  I asked him to email them, and my sister thumbed keys on his new phone until they all sent.  I had needed to take the plastic bag out and hold its weight between my hands. The ash looked exactly like ash, so of course I thought of the lifetime of cigarettes she had exhaled. I shouldn’t have been surprised when someone said the white specks were bone, obviously not pebbles, not sea shells.”

It’s perfectly fine in itself, but I wrote it while also developing the visual elements it would interact with. So for me, reading it in isolation makes it seem not just incomplete, but haunted, or rather emptied. Not only are the intended images not there, but the words are less ambiguous, are more, well, prosaic, without the visual referents leveraging more possibilities from each phrase, like the words themselves have been stripped out. Stripping out is literally how I make my images. I had already been working with a photograph of a swimmer, digitally culling it down to outlines. I repurposed it for this sequence:

 

 

 

I don’t believe my mother’s soul went anywhere when she died, because I don’t believe my mother had a soul. I don’t believe anyone does. I find the word painful, an impossible amalgam of bad science and desperation. I could not write something describing anything close to what these images imply: some inexplicable other-wordly essence bisecting ours and swimming off to deeper waters. It’s not something I can believe through words. But pictures? Or better still, pictures and their slippery interactions with words–apparently I can get on board with that.

Apparently I’m better at mourning my mother in comics.

 

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