Reviews

My Begging Chart

My Begging Chart

Keiler Roberts

Drawn & Quarterly

$19.95

156 pages

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Drawings are pleasing to look at because they're not photographs. They're a recording (an imperfect one) of how someone else sees the world and what they think is important based on what they choose to emphasize. Keiler Roberts, whose most recent book is "My Begging Chart," sometimes fills her panels with detail: the dust on a ceiling fan, rendered in little arcs and squiggles; a series of patterns on the blocks of a crazy quilt; the cover of Snoop Dogg's cookbook on a shelf in a bookstore. At the same time, she re-creates most everything else in her life in simpler drawings, without shading. The lines that make up those drawings sometimes don't meet in areas where they should, or they exist alongside another attempt at the same line. They can feel unsteady but fraught with concentration, like when someone is practicing drawing with their nondominant hand.

The events Roberts's comics show, in this book and in others, are deliberately mundane and not very narrative focused: she takes a bath, she plays Barbies with her daughter, she gets annoyed about petty things, she calls her mom. Mostly they have words, but they don't provide a lot of context. Sometimes they don't have words OR context. One set of four panels (she prefers to work in that format, two over two, all vertically oriented) [p. 65] shows a panel of her napping with her daughter; a panel of her treating her daughter's hair for lice (or dying it? I'm not sure), a panel of her with her dog at the vet (possibly getting bad news, based on the vet's facial expression), and a panel of her sitting on a rock outside a building with her legs crossed. What do these panels have to do with one another? They don't even seem to take place on the same day because her clothing varies from panel to panel. As readers, we don't know. They feel a little closed off to us, held close to Roberts's chest as private objects, made by her and for her and only coincidentally revealed to us. She doesn't even seem to care about our attention, which is a weird feeling as an audience member and perhaps even as a person. We spend so much of our life relating to and thinking about other humans that it's strange to encounter someone focused on her own thing who genuinely doesn't seem to care whether we're looking at her or not.

Are these diary comics and, if so, why are they compelling? That form often leads to a whole lot of blathering on, but Roberts's restraint makes her work more interesting than finding out what movie someone watched on a given day or what they ate. At the same time, they can be serenely boring. On page 11, she wonders about whether or not to vacuum that dusty ceiling fan. On page 76, with nothing else said about it, in a single, full-page, wordless panel, she vacuums the fan, her dog sleeping on the bed behind her, her dresser and part of her bed reflected in a mirrored wardrobe. Who cares? And, at the same time, we do?

The other thing about Roberts's work is the way she structures the words in her strips, almost entirely through dialogue. The beats are punchline-oriented but the punchlines are dry or flat. It's like watching a Beckett play and wondering whether or not you're supposed to find something funny (as opposed to the usual gut-level, instinctual reaction to humor). I think that these elements (the intense focus, the personal nature of the subjects, the dialogue) all come together to create comics that are fairly existentialist. They feel like part of a mindfulness practice, exercised to keep the creator's mind on the world and her body and brain involved. If you slow down while reading them, they can do the same for you, although not to the same extent that they do so for Roberts. She writes about her anxieties and irritations, her frustrations and ruminative thoughts, but these comics feel like a way of managing those things by lassoing them and then patting them gently, like a skittish animal, to calm them down. Her books aren't very different from one another, but that's sort of the idea.

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