Comic Book Artists on Parenthood, Creativity, and Cry-Barfing

This story is part of a series on parenting in the digital age—from surveilling our teens to helping our kids navigate fake news and misinformation.

In a lot of comic books, parents are background figures, just out of frame. They don’t have faces or heads; everything they say comes out as a Peanuts-esque “wah wah, wah wah wah.” At the very least, they have the good grace to bow out during the exposition, before the real adventure begins.

But many cartoonists and illustrators use the medium to explore their own human stories. And like many of us, their stories include tending to kids—those small, helpless aliens that grew inside your body and are now growing inside your house. “I feel like anything that takes your heart and changes it is a good thing for your art,” says Emily Flake, the performer, illustrator, and writer of The New Yorker’s comic column, “Parent as a Verb.”

Here are three of my favorite comic book artists who are graphically—in both meanings of the word—grappling with how the nitty-gritty details of parenthood change your life, and your outlook. While many people may think that having kids extinguishes your creativity, these parents have found (as have I) the exact opposite to be the case. We may be short on time and energy, but we have so many more things to say.

I’ve been a fan of Lucy Knisley’s for years, ever since her 2008 graphic novel, French Milk, about traveling in France with her mother. Knisley’s drawing style is clean and unfussy. Her stories are infused with interesting factoids, small memories and insights, and whimsical flights of fancy. When she feels drained, she draws a test tube to measure the levels of her creative juices.

Since French Milk, she has published a series of acclaimed autobiographical graphic novels, including last year’s Kid Gloves, a heartfelt, occasionally hilarious, chronicle of her pregnancy. Her latest work, Go To Sleep (I Miss You), goes on sale on February 25, 2020.

It’s a collection of short sketchbook comics that the outrageously prolific Knisley originally posted on Instagram (@lucyknisley) during her maternity leave. “The act of sharing them online was really important to me,” Knisley says. “I think most people in that isolated situation [caring for a newborn] feel really alone with what they’re going through.” For example, any parent who has grappled with exhaustion can empathize with Knisley’s sometimes sloppy lines in Go to Sleep, so uncharacteristic of her normally precise style.

It’s weird, I note, while many parents fear “the mommy wars,” I’ve personally found parenting social media to be one of the last safe spaces on the internet. “Most parents are so kind and generous with their time. It’s been really lovely,” Knisley says. “Of course, there’s always the odd weird person who is going to tell you weird things about your parenting. Most of the people that tell me weird things about my parenting aren’t actual parents, anyway.”

Courtesy of Drawn and Quarterly

Sylvia Nickerson is a comics writer and illustrator based in Hamilton, a Canadian rust belt city just outside of Toronto. Her 2019 graphic novel, Creation, is a dreamy, sprawling, meditative work. In softly watercolored panels thick with detail, she muses on raising a small child, visiting a sick parent, and being an artist, all while living in a slowly gentrifying city.

While having a child might be an excuse for profound self-absorption, Nickerson’s gaze turns outward. Her faceless, boneless figure nurses her son in her crowded art studio and holds her mother’s hands in a cancer ward. A lullaby drifts out of an open window and through run-down streets. She finds a homeless person sleeping in a dumpster and picks garbage out of the flower beds in front of her house. This is the city her son lives in, she muses, and it has a lot of problems that need fixing.

“After having a child you live in the world more, especially as a creative person,” Nickerson says. “Becoming a parent tears down boundaries that you might’ve developed between yourself and the world. It’s not just yourself anymore—you see how messy everything is. It doesn’t feel safe at all.”

Creation was drawn from notes and illustrations that Nickerson did while her son was very young, so it may surprise new readers to know that he is now 10. It all feels very immediate and familiar to this particular parent of young children. I also live in a gentrifying city, and am also hyperaware that the people around me who might provide parenting advice are also someone else’s daughters and sons.

In small ways, Nickerson tries to answer the question: How do you make decisions that will better your community, the world, and your kids? “I do think having a kid is the death of your own childhood,” Nickerson says. “You have to become the adult … I think that was good for me. I was going to own the consequences of my actions. I couldn’t blame anyone else anymore.”

Courtesy of The New Yorker

Emily Flake is a New York–based cartoonist and stand-up performer (and sometimes both, at the same time). Her work is acutely observed, acerbic, and occasionally heart-wrenching, particularly her 2015 parenting memoir Mama Tried and her column in The New Yorker, “Parent as a Verb.”

“‘Parenting as a verb feels like a new way of thinking about parenting,” Flake says. “It’s something that you do, and something that you can accomplish—or be bad at. It seems to encompass this feeling of a curated life that you’re supposed to have … I think people used to make less of a big f*cking deal about having kids. When the word ‘parent’ became a verb is when we started taking it a little too seriously.”

Of course, you do get the sense that Flake does take her parenting seriously. After all, you don’t write a whole essay in which you freak out about producing enough breast milk if you’re not serious about it. But she’s very aware of the fact that we’re all just winging it and there’s no real way to judge if you’ve done a good job until your child is around 30, anyway.

Sleep Training” covers the abrupt pivots that happen when you can’t follow through on what you adamantly planned to do. In the face of “psychotic barf-crying,” you hunker down, cuddle your kid to sleep, and in spite of yourself, find an almost unendurable sweetness in knowing that this is exactly where you’d want to be in the event of a nuclear war.

“Personal death and societal collapse are never far from your mind when you’re a parent,” Flake says, laughing. “You know, under the drumbeat of fear and horror that is the human condition. That’s where the empathy comes from—that knowing no matter what our circumstances are, we’re all temporary. Nothing really brings that home like having a kid.”

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