In her new collection of autobio comics, Persephone's Garden, Glynnis Fawkes frequently portrays her kids as whiny brats, dissatisfied with everything. They travel to Israel and Greece, and all the kids want to do is stay home. She tries to get them to museums, and they complain and bicker, eventually sitting in the corner and staring at their iPods. The beach is boring; the waterpark has too many rules. They don't like anything.
The children are presented as exasperating and annoying. But reading through the book, I found myself identifying with them more than I would have liked. Fawkes' book travels to distant places, but wherever it goes, it is caught in an autobio rut of quotidian preciousness.
Part of the problem is the format. Persephone's Garden is essentially a series of diary comics, chronicling whatever it is Fawkes happens to have been doing in her day to day life. If you found one of these in an anthology collection, it might be a welcome break from more intense fare. Fawkes' sketchy, cartoony art is lively if not revelatory (she draws some awfully cute bunnies). Some of her writing is engaging in a pleasant, mild vein. It's interesting to learn about why archeological digs use artists rather than photographers to provide a visual record of their findings, for example.
At 272 pages, though, the appeal quickly fades. One cartoon about how her "kids say the darndest things" (that's an actual quote from the book) is endearing. Fifty starts to seem like carelessness. The first comic about her artist mother's Alzheimer's, which is little more than a series of her mom's patterned knit designs becoming less and less complex, is moving, in part because of its formal inventiveness. But then at the end of the book we get essentially the same story, told in a more conventional manner. Nor is the repetition thematized; it just sits there.
That again speaks to the book's lack of ambition; it's a collection of sketches, not a unified whole. Some readers may find that breeziness charming, but I kept wishing Fawkes had been willing to stretch herself a bit thematically, or formally, or really in any way at all. Instead, Fawkes' choices are so familiar, and so rote, that one finds oneself inevitably making invidious comparisons. Some pieces feel like Fun Home without the ambivalence or tension, and then there's a comic about her daughter having trouble choosing a shirt is treated as a sweet one off in a sit-com vein, meant to show how kids are impossible but adorable. It immediately called to mind a similar sequence in one of Ariel Schrag's autobiographical comics, in which choosing a new pair of glasses becomes a rolling existential nightmare and identity crisis, which grinds across weeks and months. In Fawkes, the point is that these little quirks of her daughter's are amusing and ultimately harmless; small things are fun because they're small. In Schrag, the point is that little quirks and small decisions can hijack your life. It's the difference between a Hallmark card and Kafka.
Similarly, Fawkes' four panel comics in which her kids say cute stuff made me wish I was reading Charles Schulz, with his much tighter command of rhythm, his vivid characters, and his surreal take on sentimentality. Bunnies flying to bunny world is fine, but it's not a patch on Snoopy fighting the Red Baron. A sequence in which Fawkes imagines herself going to a yoga studio with Charlotte Bronte is reminiscent of Kate Beaton stripped of her absurdist and satirical edge. The result is that Charlotte comes across as a meek maiden aunt, rather than as a weird, erratic genius.
In one comic, Fawkes is running in the woods, when suddenly she finds a baby under a skunk cabbage. I hoped we might be headed towards a Gabrielle Bell story, in which the tropes of autobio dissolve into magical realism, so that you end up feeling like reality itself is an arbitrary representation, which slides away in the space between the gutters. But, alas, that's not Fawkes. She's no soon started on the flight of fancy than she dismisses it. "Just kidding!" she says as the skunk cabbage baby poofs away, and we're back to standard autobiography, with the usual reflective tone, and expected mild meditative epiphanies about life, memory, and love.
If I read through Persephone's Garden wishing I was reading something else, I think it's in part because Fawkes' work here seems so anonymous, and so little infused with a personality of its own. Usually in autobio comics you expect to get to know the creator. And you do learn a bit about Fawkes' hobbies, interests, and circumstances; she likes traveling, she's fascinated by Greece and the Middle East, she makes up stories about bunnies, her mom is sick. But none of this resolves into a strong individual perspective or sense of self. You half expect to turn a page and see a series of text blocks; "insert insight here; insert life lesson here; insert cute anecdote, followed by mythological reference." Persephone's Garden could be anyone's garden, or no one's. The kids are right, unfortunately; most of what's here isn't worth leaving the house for.