A lot of ink has been spilled on the topic of illness and loss. The theme is a universal, as we all eventually face the death of a loved one and therefore must come to identify with the experience. Like all of the important parts of life, people want to share their experiences with grief. Tackling stories of personal loss in storytelling is a difficult undertaking, but some comics on this topic are the highest regarded examples of the medium—think Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which is as much about the death of Spiegelman’s father and its impact on Spiegelman as it is about his father’s experiences during the Holocaust. The ways in which cartoonists have approached this topic are varied and richly nuanced, and each story speaks to the reader differently.
Homesick, the first graphic novel of Minneapolis-based cartoonist Jason Walz, is one such story. A semi-autobiographical account of Walz’s experiences dealing with his mother’s cancer, it follows a long path of shock, panic, and aching nostalgia gradually through to a point of release, while conjuring images of cosmic loneliness and sweeping loss. Always engaging and heartfelt, the book’s imagery and the emotions it evokes become stronger as the story progresses.
Walz made an effort to avoid other comic stories based on terminal illness while he was developing this book. I find this completely fair. Why try to compare these experiences to each other? It seems crude to say one artist’s pain is more provocative than another’s, and in this way Walz distills his experience rather than diluting it with notions of how this kind of book should work.
The story leaps great distances between time and space and tends to emphasize how these distances affect the characters, especially the distance between Walz and his mother. After opening with a scene featuring an astronaut in orbit, the narrative slides to Earth where, while in Istanbul with his fiancee, Walz receives news of his mother’s cancer returning. From there, the reader is pitched into early memories from Walz’s childhood, when his mom protected him while he struggled through medical issues, the memories making it harder for him to not be able to be there for her.
Later, dialogue between Walz and a student about the first man to orbit the earth and the lonely sound of his heartbeat picked up by a radio signal shifts the story spaceward again, tying the isolated astronaut—who reflects Jason’s anxiety—to the story. The astronaut bides his time away from Earth by making paper cranes, not unlike the author making art to deal with the same sense of distance from his mother.
This emphasis on distance makes instances of immediacy and intimacy more striking, such as the close-ups andmedical shots, particularly sequences of cancer treatment paraphernalia, cross-sections of the tumor and of Jason’s heart during panic attacks, mirrored expressions of worry, and hands tangled together in support of their owners. These tightly observed sequences give us a solid recollection of Jason’s memories of the events of the story.
The comic is illustrated in black and white, and the line work is evocative of Craig Thompson’s graphic novel work. The character design is reminiscent of more stoic books, such as Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, and Frank King’s Gasoline Alley—blank eyes without pupils and lumpy figures that distance the reader from the scene they’re observing. Walz endeavors to match the quiet but intense line work that Thompson seems to glide through, and in many places the artwork shows his potential as a cartoonist.
Walz will be launching and selling his book at Rain Taxi’s Twin Cities Book Fest on Saturday, October 13 at the State Fairgrounds in St. Paul. If you’re in town you should consider stopping by to check it out. Chris Ware, author of Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid in the World will also be there. And, of course, so will Paper Darts.