The story of how Miriam Katin got into comics offers one of the more unusual entry points for a cartoonist of her skill. While working as a professional animator, she was invited by a bunch of her friends in the industry to contribute something to a comics anthology they were putting together. That was the now-defunct Monkeysuit anthology, which featured some attractive and interesting work in its several volumes. Katin’s work stood out because she started to write about her experiences and her mother’s experiences growing up in World War II-era Hungary. The starkness of her black and white work, and the sensitivity and the absolute clarity with which she recounted painful events was remarkable. It was hard to believe that she had never written about these experiences before.
To properly appreciate her new book Letting It Go, it helps to read her first long-form book from Drawn & Quarterly, We Are On Our Own. That’s the harrowing, unbelievable story of her mother taking her out of Hungary when the Nazis came, knowing that horrors awaited them as Jews if they stayed. It’s a story about survival in harsh conditions and pretending to be something you’re not in order to live another day. Though the book was an attempt to exorcise old pain and tell her mother’s story as well as her own, old wounds don’t always heal, no matter how they’re attended to.
That’s what Letting It Go is about, but Katin brings to this book a light and occasionally even absurdly comic touch to the proceedings. The plot is simple: Miriam’s adult son tells her that he wants to move to Berlin on a permanent basis with his girlfriend. For Miriam, this is partly a kind of betrayal and partly a parent’s nightmare of sending their child off to a place that represents the most dangerous, evil city in the world. It’s also an opportunity for Katin to examine and confront her long-held prejudices and fears, which she does in amusing and hyperbolic fashion.
The entire book is drawn in colored pencil. This adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the comic that makes it look like it was ripped right out of Katin’s sketchbook. It also allows her to shift from naturalism to a cartoonier style with little effort. Katin’s own self-caricature is one of the best I’ve ever seen from an autobiographical cartoonist. The scribbly lines of her hair, the slightly pointy nose, the tiny but wriggly eyebrows that express so much emotion and the way her posture alternates between slumped shoulders and excitedly active tell the story of a woman who is so often bursting with energy. In real life, Katin is poised, stylish, and charismatic, so it is funny to see her depict herself as slightly disheveled and neurotic in the pages of her book.
Katin’s work in this book reminds me a bit of Vanessa Davis and Carol Tyler’s autobio, reflecting a certain vivaciousness and cheerfulness of character despite the difficulties life throws their way. The book begins with a humorous meditation on Katin’s obsession with all things German and the menace they might contain: could German coffee-makers be rigged to explode? Why is it so fitting for her nemesis the German cockroach to be named as such? Despite these mild neuroses, Katin leads a pleasant enough life as a typically procrastinating cartoonist, sharing a space with her music-playing husband.
Like Tyler in her You’ll Never Know series of books, Katin has trouble beginning the story, so she simply starts in the middle so as to work back to the beginning. There’s a certain thrill to be had as a reader familiar with her work to see the scenes where she visits her elderly mother (now in her nineties) in her apartment in order to drink (“So. We drink?” “Of course!”, as Miriam adorably claps her hands together.) The book is in part about a level of intimacy so powerful that it crosses conventional manners, embarrassments, and insecurities. Those closest to you can sometimes drive you crazy (and vice versa), but in Katin’s case they provide the foundation of her life. Indeed, that’s why her son’s actions are so disturbing to her; he’s a wanderer like his mother, but she can’t understand why he’d pick Berlin in particular to make his home.
Eventually, Katin consents to visit her son and his girlfriend, meditating on her own lack of compassion for the people of Berlin after the war and comparing it to how sensitive and weepy she gets when watching certain movies. Much of the book is devoted to Katin systematically (and sometimes painfully) wrecking long-held fantasies and memories, like when she calls up a Turkish lover whom she hadn’t spoken to in fifty years to ask him about Berlin, only to be rightly reproached.
The trip itself offers almost a parody of the sort of revelations one is supposed to experience when traveling to a place fraught with meaning and symbolism. That’s brought home with a hilarious, embarrassing, disgusting, and quite lengthy scene of Katin accidentally soiling her bed and herself after eating a rich meal in Berlin. The look of horror on her face when she realizes that she’s no longer actually passing gas is played for laughs, as Berlin still managed to extract a toll of sorts on her.
Everything changes when Katin is invited back to Berlin to be part of an exhibit featuring pages from her first book. She softens on the city a bit, even altering the details of a story originally meant to make Berlin seem malevolent (her husband lost his wedding ring and thought it was stolen) to reflect the truth (he had misplaced it in some clothing). The lengths she goes to in order to look good for the art opening (whitening strips, desperately trying to lose weight) are magnified when the Icelandic volcano eruption of 2010 threatens to cancel the visit. The way she approaches the events shows just how much she let old grudges go, even if she can’t help taking one last shot at Germany when she depicts the bedbugs that chewed her up on her second visit as little creatures in suits who were doing it deliberately–and planning to conquer America!
The process of telling this story, of being confronted by her fears and hatreds because of her son’s choices, shows Katin starting to lose her rage. It’s a hard thing to keep, even in the abstract, for such a long period of time. The way she makes fun of herself for so many of her fears while still being unable to resist playing them up makes this memoir unexpectedly hilarious. One would never have expected the artist behind We Are On Our Own to have such delightful comic timing, but Katin is able to both expunge irrational but deeply held feelings and understand them for what they are. Katin transforms them into jokes, both on herself and on the country that brought her family so much pain; such humor is often the best way to root out old wounds while finding a way to distance oneself from the source of the trauma, once and for all.