Keiler Roberts’ newest volume of loosely assembled memoir strips, Sunburning, is a more assured, confident, and cohesive collection than her prior work. While Roberts displayed a distinct authorial voice, a refreshing lack of fussiness with her blunt and direct pencil drawings, and a powder-dry sense of humor in her past comics, everything comes into tighter focus in this book. She tackles all of her usual topics: life as a working mother and artist; the continued growth and delightful agency of her daughter, Xia; her relationship with her husband Scott, her parents, and others in her life; how she deals with being bipolar as well as other various neurological and chiropractric ailments; and general observations about life.
Roberts portrays herself with brutal honesty and isn’t afraid to look prickly or even selfish. That’s partly a guise for her genuine curiosity about others and tremendous empathy, a cover that she reveals in dribs and drabs even as she gets off hilarious one-liners. However serious the subjects of her strips, Roberts is a gagsmith first and foremost. No matter how dark or grim the tone (and sometimes it’s just frothy or silly), Roberts always constructs her strips with the rhythm of a humorist, including the final beat of a punchline at the end of the strip. That said, she’s also quite willing to cede the best lines to characters other than her own, including (and especially) Scott and Xia. In fact, it’s obvious that she often positions her curmudgeonly self-caricature as an antagonistic force for others to bounce off of. One example: her telling Scott that she’s letting him have his way in a house decorating decision because “she’s really nice.” Another is Roberts being frustrated by an unresponsive friend and declaring she needs something to annoy her even more, to which Scott lovingly puts a hand on her shoulder and says, “I’m always here for you.” It’s a triple-threat of a line: a funny zinger, a genuine expression of affection, and an acknowledgment of Roberts’ crankiness.
Roberts plays down that persona when the strips are about her illnesses, mental and physical. There’s a remarkable scene where she realizes that Xia is starting to understand a lot of the material in her mother’s comics, prompting Roberts to think it best to tell her about being bipolar. The fantastic thing about the scene is not just how nonchalantly the girl accepts the news, but also how she adapts it into a vernacular she can understand, comparing her mom’s needs for pills to the dog’s. Later, when Scott asks her what she thinks her mom wants for Christmas, she exclaims, “Pills!” There are scenes when an ever-more self-aware Xia tells her mom not to put something in a comic when Roberts realizes how delicate the balance is in telling her daughter’s story. In many ways, this volume sees Roberts begin to step away from focusing on her daughter. There’s a sequence where Scott, ever the devil’s advocate, wonders out loud if kids will find out that Xia’s been in a comic book and make fun of her for it. For a moment, it paralyzes Roberts, until she realizes that it could very well have gone the other way, with Xia resenting the fact that she has never appeared in her mom’s comics. I’m not truly sure it would have been possible for Roberts to have ever fully excluded her daughter from these memoirs, and that impulse is not at all unlike the urge to take countless photos of one’s child and put them on Facebook.
After a number of comics where Roberts shows how much of a pain in the ass raising a child truly is, this book shows how the intensity of one’s connection to one’s child can supersede those often incredibly difficult moments. There’s one scene where Roberts simply wants Xia to hug her; Xia is more interested in eating gingerbread, and it’s heartbreaking. The ups and downs of bipolar life are especially difficult for Roberts, and she compensates by trying to control as much as her life as possible–especially in the way she keeps the house clean. There’s one long section where we see her work on every aspect of the house, and when Scott comes home and warmly greets her, she replies, “You’re tracking in dirt and leaves” instead of
saying hello. It’s an unknowing disruption of her equilibrium, and it’s worse when it’s self-inflicted, like when she knocks a sugar bowl onto the floor. While saying barely a word, Roberts succinctly demonstrates what it’s like living with bipolarity. What’s funny is that that level of fussiness does not extend to the page. While she works in a naturalistic style to be sure, the expressiveness of her characters and the sense of them living in a space the reader feels is real is more important than precision or detail. There’s nothing precious about her drawings, and that immediacy is crucial in getting across the power of the emotion that’s in so many of her stories.
Roberts examines the minutiae of her back problems, odd neurological symptoms from her past, chronic fatigue, and other illnesses, in part because she is able to find humor in them, in part because they are genuinely odd and frequently inexplicable, and also because it is a way of revealing how someone can be partially disabled or ill yet seem completely healthy. Where Roberts goes from good to great is in modulating the emotional arc of the book; she is careful to balance long sections about illness with shorter, funnier strips. The specificity of Roberts’ difficulties and how she is willing to provide detail makes them all the more relatable to the audience, but it is clear that she finds it important to emphasize that her intellectual and emotional curiosity extends far beyond her own skin.
That’s especially true in the hilarious spa sequence that’s a sort of sequel to a similar scene in her earlier book, Miseryland, where once again Roberts and a friend sit and soak in a spa, commenting on bodies, the idea of who they’d least want to run into at the spa, and the odd scene of mothers coming to the spa with their young children. As Roberts noted in the interview I conducted with her here at TCJ, she loves drawing bodies in all their shapes, sizes, and oddities. In general, nudity in her books signals a more relaxed scene or some kind of great gag, or simply life as it is normally lived. There are quiet moments of joy, happy moments spent around family, moments of frustration, and the creeping realization that Xia is using Roberts for material in her playtime just as Roberts is using Xia for her comics. Play is crucial to happiness, and because of its importance, it is a deadly serious activity; one works out one’s imagination and emotions through the tools that are available to them. Roberts expresses that comics are what make her happiest, precisely because they offer her an opportunity to play, explore and create narratives. With this volume, she adds the personal insight of how best to arrange each of these narratives with regard to how they relate to each other, adding a level of complexity that makes this a powerfully satisfying and engaging read.