How do you take something as complex and confounding as the most tumultuous time in a person’s adult life and make a concise and compelling short story out of it? Annie Mok’s solution: Echo the tumult. In as-below-so-above fashion, Worst Behavior, an illustrated memoir for the “Dedication”-themed January issue of the online magazine Rookie, utilizes a hybrid format to describe and analyze a three-year period during which a host of issues that by rights would be overwhelming individually pulled Mok’s life in a dizzying number of directions. She uses prose, comics, illustration, hand lettering, sampled/disassembled/reassembled passages from her previous work, and quotes from the artists who’ve inspired her along the way to harness that onslaught in an act of creative judo, simultaneously communicating its power and demonstrating her artistic, emotional, and intellectual ability to best it.
To start her narrative, Mok begins near its temporal end: a night in January 2014, a year ago this month. A fun debut event for one of her comics soon devolves into a lousy time at a club where, as a trans woman, she’s seen as a “non-entity,” if she can truly be said to be seen at all: The trans boys who made up the bulk of the crowd, she recalls, “looked right through me.” A long journey back to her Philadelphia home leads her to a bottle of gin. With a self-destructive drink, she goes from feeling invisible in a crowd of strangers to painfully exposed among a group of intimates: “I knew no one in the house, a punk house, cared if I drank, but I got the feeling that this swig looked sad.” The seen-and-not-seen thematic linkage is tight and evocative, a link driven home by the image on the following page: a weeping ouroboros, gagging on its own tail. This in turn is looped into the page’s prose component, a “pushed out” childhood memory of tossing soda cans into recycling bins filled with alcohol empties. When the click over to the next page reveals we’ve well and truly flashed back in time to 2012, Mok has already taught us to expect connections that span both time and space.
That third page is the comic’s key. For one thing, it grants the comic its title, which it shares with the Drake song from which Mok draws a handwritten quote here: “On my worst behavior/No/They used to never wanna hear us/Remember?/Motherfuckers never loved us.” Like fellow Canadian memoirists from Julie Doucet to Chester Brown, Drake excels at using specific, rigorously observed references to events in his life (standouts from his last record: family holiday get-togethers made awkward by his success; the make and model of the car he’d borrow from his uncle as a teenager; the feeling that he’d become estranged from his friend, colleague, and fellow hip-hop superstar Nicki Minaj but doesn’t know how to repair the breach). This lends his lyrics an ability to evoke unpleasant and private emotions in a way that feels rooted, concrete—a marked contrast with less sophisticated pop’s simpler psychological vocabulary. It also makes his moments of braggadocio feel earned, a sensation that Mok’s sample of his DGAF anthem “Worst Behavior”’s chorus retains from the source material.
As well it should: The quote accompanies a brief but life-changing litany of crises and breakthroughs Mok experienced in 2012, which she introduces with one simple phrase: “My world ended.” She continues: “That year, I broke up with my boyfriend, went into therapy, recovered memories of being sexually assaulted as a little kid, and started identifying as trans.” Any one of these events would make a worthy stand-alone subject for an essay of this sort; if combining them into one comic seems like a challenge, one can only imagine actually enduring them all in the space of twelve months. Loud music created as a response to self-doubt is just what the doctor ordered, as pretty much anyone could attest.
But like Drake, who in his video for “Started from the Bottom” lampooned the contrast between his child-star background and the rags-to-riches narrative implied by the song’s title with a lengthy sequence depicting him as a drug-store employee getting promoted to manager, Mok has a sense of humor she can wield with wicked effect, even about events this seismic. A 2012 cartoon she reproduces on the following page, “The Iceberg Metaphor”, serves as a laugh-out-loud demonstration. The iceberg’s tip is labeled “My conscious mind,” as expected. Scroll down a bit and you’ll find the mass below the surface, “My unconscious mind.” But scroll down past that? “Also there’s a live shark frozen in it,” with an arrow helpfully pointing at the immobilized predator’s serrated chompers. It’s funny, and frightfully accurate.
Things only pick up steam from here. The next page contains tributes to two more influential artists: A comic in which Mok recounts getting high back when she still identified as a boy and crying while watching Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service because she identified so powerfully with the titular teenage witch. Below that, she painstakingly reproduces a series of New Year’s Eve tweets from John Darnielle, the writer and singer for the Mountain Goats, encouraging his fellow abuse survivors to celebrate the successful completion of another year. On the next page, which shifts to 2013 but recounts events that took place less than a week after Darnielle’s tweets, she describes the email she sent to her parents that both cut off contact with them and secured the funding she needed to survive while dealing with both her transition and her mental disabilities. That night, she contemplated suicide while crossing a bridge, but then contemplated one of Darnielle’s lyrics: “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” “I did not, as you know, kill myself,” she deadpans, a victory disguised as an understatement.
A flip of the page brings us back to 2014, a comic that explicitly references the geographical impressionism of John Porcellino and Frank Santoro, the films of Sidney Lumet, and the architectural legacy of Walt Whitman, namesake of many structures near Mok’s home. The accompanying prose cites Whitman, Drake, and Morrissey as “a trifecta of creative reactions to hurt” (what a phrase!), as well as self-creation in the face of marginalization. But it also, via the critic Jane Smiley, points out that artists’ personae are often more together than the artists themselves, citing her own work/life dichotomy as Exhibit A. That’s a bracingly direct address of a central riddle in memoir, a slice right through its self-as-character Gordian knot.
That’s the first of five pages in a row that feature actual comics. The next, with pink-and-blue color scheme reminiscent of Santoro & Ben Jones’s drug-addled, dissociative opus Cold Heat, shows Mok describing crushes in psychedelically visual terms, following that up with one of Whitman’s paeans to the transcendent nature of physicality, complicating that with a list of physical traits Mok later describes as uncomfortable “tells” of her transness. That description comes on a subsequent page that pulls the panel out of its context and flips it, so that the list, originally printed sideways, is featured right-side-up, front-and-center. The rearrangement itself is an assertion of ownership that mirrors the declaration “all mine” with which Mok concludes it: “I don’t need to learn to love my body,” she says, “but I wanted to at least not actively hate it.”
On the intervening pages, which accompanied by comics that bear visible signs of their excision from larger works, Mok describes a different kind of influence: that of her friends. A romance with artist and game designer merritt kopas, Mok’s first serious relationship with another trans woman, “helped me feel whole in my body.” (This relationship forms the backdrop of Mok’s fine three-part comic Shadow Manifesto, another multivalent work that combines memoir, abstraction, and gaming criticism.) When the intense feelings sparked in that short period come up in conversation with artist Sab Meynert, Meynert tells Mok, “Time isn’t linear.” You can practically hear the light bulb switch on in Mok’s head at the moment as she describes it in the essay, so perfectly does the concept fit not only with the ebb and flow of past and present that has characterized much of the emotional and psychological turmoil she’s talked and drawn about, but also the temporal crosscutting she’s employed to do so.
“I ended 2014 as a sober girl, healing in public,” Mok says as the piece nears its conclusion. “I ended 2014 with a question… How do I use my pain to make myself strong but not hardened? How do I soften my heart?” It’s not for the reader to say whether she’s found the answer — shit, it’s only been two weeks — but she’s certainly found a fecund way to work toward it within her art and writing. Springboarding off writer Rachel Pollack’s vision of art as a tool of both oppression and liberation — “If images have trapped us, then images can free us” — Mok describes, in the final line of the piece that’s her own, what her own freeing image looks like: “I like seeing artists make new images of themselves, images that integrate multiplicity.” It’s simple enough, as far as artists’ statements go, but it’s striking because she’s proven both this interest and its efficacy on every page that led up to this one. By the time you reach this line, you practically could have written it yourself.
On the final page, Mok writes out two quotes that encapsulate both the multiplicity — Whitman’s famous “I contain multitudes” — and the integration thereof — a passage from Big Sean’s verse on the Drake song “All Me”, that concludes with the simultaneously humble and boastful declaration “If there’s one thing I am worth it.” The juxtaposition is so neat, so smart, so fitting for a memoir in which a multiplicity of approaches never devolves into sprawl or sloppiness, but rather retains a communicative clarity a more streamlined approach likely couldn’t have come near, a clarity that only increases with turn of the page.