Now three decades into her career as a cartoonist, Megan Kelso’s newest book, Who Will Make the Pancakes, contains a spectrum of stories encompassing not only sex and birth but how the life that follows stays sustained. The volume is an intimate look at both external duties and the internal worlds behind them.
The opening section, “Watergate Sue”, was first serialized in the New York Times Magazine 15 years ago. Published during the George W. Bush era, it now reads even more powerfully after experiencing a term's worth of Trump. The narrative depicts Eve, a mother who reluctantly gets pregnant with her second child in 1973. She becomes deeply involved in a parasocial relationship with President Richard Nixon through his mediated images and words from the newspaper and TV. As the news becomes a conduit for her frustrations, her anger over deferred plans and domestic burdens grows. These origins are recalled 32 years later when her grown daughter goes through her first pregnancy. It’s the most urgent and captivating of all five stories; it is worth picking up a copy of the book just for this piece.
As a figurehead, “Watergate Sue” leads the rest of Kelso’s stories through themes of women’s labor and the limits of escapism. While comic book history contains substantial representation for the psychedelic, the fantastical, and the drug-fueled, it’s telling that Kelso’s women dream not of supernatural states or exploring the outer realms of consciousness, but of greater help at home. This should not be understated. As subject matter, Kelso’s women are firmly mired in everyday concerns with little room to get away from such pressing needs, as much as they might try.
Regarding “Cats in Service”, the second story, Kelso mentions in the book's Notes that it came from a “fallow period” after the birth of her daughter. As one of the more surreal pieces, it recalls the popular quote, “I have no dream job, I do not dream of labor.” The aspiration here is for others to take care of the daily work - and if not help from the husband or the kids, then maybe an inherited fleet of felines will do. It’s one of two pieces, along with the fourth selection, “Korin Voss”, with a shared aesthetic of simple outlines with minimal shading drawn in black and white. Interestingly enough, both pieces are also the most predicated on class, and the unadorned form of them fits the artist’s sentiments. When Kelso has been asked about her work, she’s spoken about dreading computer coloring and almost getting carpal tunnel syndrome from time-consumptive lettering. Alienation from labor performed is revealed to be a problem for both mothers and cartoonists.
Not only does the question “Who will make the pancakes?” linger throughout these stories, but “Who will provide maintenance of the body?” - although the former phrasing is much less blunt. Applicable to both childrearing and the labor of making images, the third selection, “The Egg Room”, ties these themes together through its protagonist, Florence, who is a filmmaker and stepmother. Where the other pieces are concerned with children and childhood throughout, “The Egg Room” most explicitly circles around sex. The kids have to come from somewhere. In Florence’s case, though, the inability to conceive is depicted. It’s an insightful probing of middle age desires and obligations. Furthermore, Kelso’s choice to render this piece in watercolor enhances its themes of sensuality. The liquid form adds fluidity to the shape of its panels, which conveys a heightened look at emotionality and the psyche.
Kelso’s incorporation of mixed methods throughout the collection is refreshing, and the juxtaposition of styles sparks further engagement. The last section, “The Golden Lasso”, also breaks from a tidier aesthetic to nice effect. The pages are done in colored pencil, which gives more grit and grain to its story of rock climbing, adding visual interest to an uneasy exposition concerning innocence and responsibility among a group of teenage girls and their adult guide. The book ends on a note of guidance to girls: "take up space." Readers are left with a reflection on what experiences get passed down through the generations, and how to prevent the younger ones from similarly suffering.
Like Joyce Farmer’s Special Exits in reverse, Who Will Make the Pancakes finds its subject matter in the upkeep rather than the breakdown of bodies and life. The book is a testament to not only those who keep us alive, but animate, which is a touching parallel to how cartoonists give life to the static image. Kelso’s newest volume reveals that caregiving, although commonplace, might be more heroic than any superhero comic.