Of Pronouns and Anxiety: A Review of Luke Howard’s Our Mother

Originally published Oct. 3rd 2016

Original link: http://comicsbulletin.com/pronouns-anxiety-review-luke-howards-mother/

Ray Sonne: Upon first look, Our Mother seems like a collection of genre subversions–an interesting consideration because genre, or all media, conventions exist under our patriarchal and therefore father-centered society. Although it shouldn’t, a comic honoring the influence of the creator’s mother comes off as subversive within itself. Combined with Luke Howard’s many-paneled and multidimensional approach, Our Mother becomes a musing on the legacy of family and mental illness.

ourmother3_originalThe first vignette, which parodies a noir story with a private detective protagonist, remains among the most striking throughout the rest of the book. Unlike all other sections, the characters do not return and the storyline doesn’t continue. In that, it becomes Howard’s thesis statement: with genetic mental illness, a person’s life — even their independent adult life — is pre-decided to endure a particular kind of harsh suffering.

Howard’s lines are very selective in this vignette. The father and mother who meet with the protagonist seem entirely kindly. They consistently smile, their upbeat dialogue clashes with the protagonist’s try-hard sardonic queries, and their faces are wizened and softened. If not for the ludicrousness of the situation and the lack of reason given for them asking the protagonist to give their daughter a nervous breakdown (“It’s just tradition, dear.”), one could almost believe that they truly have good reasons for their intentions.

Except, of course, they’re not really parents. And the nameless protagonist isn’t really a PI. “It’s just what I do. It’s what I’ve always done,” the protagonist says while smoking a cigarette, a strange personification of the havoc depression and generalized anxiety disorder wreaks on so many lives. “So long as there’s space and time, I’ll be here. In the shadows…

But if the noir parody is Howard’s thesis statement, the heart of Our Mother lives in the next story. A little girl’s father tells her that he’s leaving her and her mother because “she won’t talk to me anymore.” The passage of time between the several panels shows the father talking even as he’s in the airplane, about to fly away. This evokes how out-of-control the situation is to the daughter, who is stuck with whom she calls her “new Mom.”

Except “new Mom” isn’t much of a mom, at all. The daughter becomes caretaker, from keeping both of ourmother2_originalthem fed to trying to cure the mother of her misery. But no matter what the daughter does, the mother continues to recline on the couch like a dead fish, her limbs extended like heavy elastic that tightens itself around her daughter like her illness tightens around their increasingly messy home. There’s also something remarkable about “new Mom”’s breasts, which lose the shape of breasts. They’re definitely not sexualized based on their ugliness, but they protrude obviously in each panel that they appear. There’s almost the suggestion that they have lost their motherly quality along with the mother herself.

In these stories, we see how familial mental illness impacts the child ultimately in two ways. While growing up and while being grown up. Howard confirms in some of the last pages of Our Mother, using childhood photos of himself and his mother, that these tales very much take from his own experience, despite that almost all of his protagonists are women. Although made by a man, Our Mother remains undeniably female-centered until the end, and its theme of mental illness sadly universal.

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