Jennifer Hayden’s Underwire, a collection of her webcomics from act-i-vate.com along with a few new stories, is pretty much as advertised: a loose and sometimes unfocused assortment of stories about the interstitial moments of her life. More to the point, it’s a collection of anecdotes that served as a sort of pressure valve while she was drawing her cancer autobiography (amusingly titled The Story Of My Tits , due in 2012). Hayden is relatively new to comics but not to writing or drawing. As she reveals in her foreword, she has made a number of failed attempts both at novels and at illustrating children’s stories. Comics is where she finally found her voice, and I found it interesting that she was especially inspired by a cavalcade of female creators from the past thirty or so years. It’s not so much notable that she was inspired by the likes of Julie Doucet, Roberta Gregory, Lynda Barry, etc.–it’s that comics has reached a critical mass where there’s quite a bit of depth in the roster of cartoonists who are women.
Hayden mostly writes about her twelve-year-old daughter, college-age son, and her husband. She relates her anecdotes with real wit and poignancy. These stories are not a kind of cheap therapy, but rather a celebration of those she loves stirred with the real and painful mixed emotions that can accompany being close to anyone. Tonally, it seems like Hayden revels in being “naughty” as a mom, like swearing in front of her kids or talking about her sex life. At times, it feels like Hayden is winking at the audience, saying, “See how scandalous I am?” Given that the vast majority of what she discusses doesn’t come within hailing distance of scandal, it feels like she’s trying too hard to be edgy when she should instead embrace her stability. (It doesn’t help that such a short comic has both a long foreword and an introduction. It felt a bit self-aggrandizing, as the strips really do speak for themselves.)
That’s a more accurate criticism of the 2008 strips that appeared at act-i-vate (Dean Haspiel’s brainchild and the home of many successful webcomics) than the 2010 stories, which find Hayden a much more confident and relaxed storyteller. This is especially true in the collection’s best story, “Girl’s Club”, which details a night spent at her mother’s apartment with her family, decorating the Christmas tree. Hayden takes her time and allows the reader to come along as she takes her daughter on a little history trip in an NYC women’s club that her grandmother had a big hand in as an illustrator many years earlier. Hayden’s use of snow in this story adds a layer of atmosphere and wistfulness to the proceedings, but balances her sentimentality with her raw sense of humor.
The 2010 strips feel more like comics in terms of their rhythms than her 2008 strips, which looked like an illustrator drew them, not a cartoonist. There’s little in the way of panel-to-panel flow, as each panel is more-or-less frozen in time. It’s hard to pin her influences down to any one artist in particular; she’s an excellent draftswoman whose figures are simple but distinctive. She throws in a lot of background hatching to give her panels some weight like Doucet, but her figures are more like Barry’s or Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s. In terms of her background and interest in discussing her family, these comics remind me most of Francesca Cassavetti’s. I doubt that Hayden has even read the comics of that English cartoonist, but both artists discuss hard-rocking lives before marriage, the joy and ambivalence of being a parent, and employ a similar scratchy line. Underwire truly reflects how the artist has evolved in a short period of time, and I’m hoping that her long-form work lives up to the potential revealed in this slim volume.