REVIEWS

Slightly Plural

Marnie Galloway began her career with In the Sounds and Seas, a silent comic about the creative, gestational spirit of women. Her comic Slightly Plural is a more literal representation of motherhood—both giving birth and the quotidian experience of being a parent. This comic covers the full gamut of Galloway's skills as a draftsman, cartoonist, and storyteller, as there are poetic comics, gag comics, straightforward autobiographical comics, densely illustrated stories, and minimalist pieces. She keeps each story short for maximum impact as she builds up to an overarching narrative regarding pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood.

"River" is full-on dense Galloway illustration: lush greenery, detailed hatching and crosshatching, and vividly portrayed characters. It's fitting that Galloway, who holds a degree in philosophy, would open the book with pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus' famous quote about not being able to step in the same river twice. It's an apt quote, given that this book is not only about pregnancy but about being pregnant multiple times. The lesson learned here is that "experience isn't prophecy," but experience is helpful nonetheless.

Galloway alternates serious and poetic stories with gags and funny anecdotes. "List" details things that have made her cry over the past two years of birth and pregnancy, from movies to feelings of connection with her son. Galloway mixes pain and laughter, as the last three items are "birth" (with a distorted image of the pain of birth), "thinking about birth" (with a pregnant Galloway walking with her toddler son, a look of horror on her face as she remembers), and then a beat for the final gag: "thinking everything is about birth" (crying because a bell pepper had a little pepper inside). Galloway's work has always been poetic and enigmatic, but she proves that she has sharp chops as a humorist here.

"Lion/Gazelle" (which Galloway plainly states is about birth) shows off her drawing skills and the visceral quality of her line as a lion hunts a gazelle. This strip is all about an intense, life-or-death experience that involves being reduced to specific biological functions in order to survive. Ultimately, it boils down to "I am aware": a total experience of pain, embodiment and temporality.

"Pregnant I" is a series of short gags about her first pregnancy and the events leading up to it, including her mother warning her at age ten that "women in our family get pregnant like slipping off a wet log," an image she amusingly returns to several times. A deliberately paced strip called "First Trimester" features a lawn sprinkler system, with the final panel featuring Galloway saying, "Like this, but puke." "Third Trimester" shows off her fine skills as a letterer and how she incorporates it into line. Eschewing naturalism, she draws a simple, cartoony version of herself declaiming things like "I CREATE LIFE" and "I LOVE BEING PREGNANT" with small whispers of "One of us is probably going to die." Once again, Galloway understands that absurdity, an all-consuming awareness of embodiment, and tragedy all blur into each other.

"Birth Story" and "Placehood" both emphasize Galloway's skill as an illustrator who can create distorted and grotesque images that are nonetheless poetic. This is a case where the distortion of a drawing is actually a more resonant account of what's happening than a description, a naturalistic drawing, or a photograph. A rubbery, absurd, and highly distressed image depicts the extremity of the pain she feels during labor and pushing in a way that other representations can not; indeed, Galloway notes, "Labor and birth are unserved by language. Birth has nothing to do with the facts of birth." One can talk about this extreme experience, but language can't get close to conveying the actual experience. "Placehood," on the other hand, conveys the silence and stillness of how a mother is not so much a person to a baby as a place--a comforting, constant location. Galloway notes how odd and unexpected this was for her.

"Tongues and Teeth" is another minimalist strip about intimacy and love with her baby, noting how odd it is for his toes to lay on her stomach, inches away from where he was once inside of her. "Pregnant II" is a gag strip that turns trauma into a punchline, as a miscarriage reducing Galloway to tears becomes a joke when she tells her husband that she actually googled "How to get over a miscarriage." It's absurd on the face of it, trying to find solace from the internet in this way. "Home Altar" is a triptych of mothers from culture and mythology: Ripley, Coatlique, and the Capitoline Wolf. These are warrior mothers, defending and nurturing at the same time.

"Pregnant III" revisits the falling-off-a-log image, this time entirely in tiny, silhouetted figures. It's as though Galloway is so wary of being happy about being pregnant that she will only allow herself to draw this in shadow, even as everything seems normal and even horribly unpleasant with regard to the birth in terms of morning sickness. Finally, "Cool Mom" sums up the journey well. In this two-page spread, we first see a friend of Galloway's saying what a relief it is that she can still hang out, can talk about stuff other than kids, and hasn't seemed to have changed at all. Galloway, transformed into a lion, loudly laughs, "Indeed, yes! Everything is the same!" It's a common conversation and set of fears for those without children, but the reality is that nothing is ever the same. You can't cross the same river twice. Your friend would be different no matter what, and it's absurd to think that a major life event would leave them unchanged. Galloway knew better but also wanted to pretend, just for a little while--both for her sake and her friend's.

Positive stress is still stress. Happy upheavals still turn everything upside down. Extreme somatic experiences leave scars, both physical and emotional. Joy and grief go hand-in-hand when it comes to raising children. Intimacy, anxiety and a deep need for autonomy all become mixed together. Having children is terrible and wonderful. Galloway gets at all of these truths and so much more, in a comic that is hilarious, poetic, and powerful in turns.

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2 Responses to Slightly Plural

  1. CyberLord says:

    “But I know the river now. This time I will make it across.”
    Very painful to read today. The image of the drowned father and daughter in the media since yesterday stays in my mind and creates pain: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jun/26/us-mexico-border-migrants-crossing-rio-grande
    Yet here I am reading about comic books.
    And yet…
    “‘Pregnant II’ is a gag strip that turns trauma into a punchline, as a miscarriage reducing Galloway to tears becomes a joke when she tells her husband that she actually googled “How to get over a miscarriage.” It’s absurd on the face of it, trying to find solace from the internet in this way.”

  2. Charles Hatfield says:

    Great review: eloquent, pointed, sharp. Great artist!

    Meeting Marnie Galloway and learning more about her work was one of the highlights of the recent ICAF in Davenport for me. Such a thoughtful, brave, unpredictable creator.

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