death is for the birds

Courtesy of Tin House

When people talk about the loss of a loved one, some like to say that grief doesn’t diminish over time, you just grow bigger around it.

For cartoonist Will Betke Brunswick, who lost his mother to cancer 13 years ago, that sentiment doesn’t quite ring true.

“That never happened for me,” says the Boulder-based artist. “I always feel like my grief is big and I’m small.”

Betke-Brunswick turned this great grief into a moving and poignant graphic memoir titled A list of pros and cons for strong feelingswhich is to be published by Tin House on November 15.

The story follows the main character, a penguin named Dooger – the author’s actual nickname – as they grapple with their mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis and the last 10 months of her life.

Scene after scene, Dooger and their mother (another penguin called Mumin) share both hilarious and heartbreaking moments. The story is told with a delicate touch that is as much a tribute to a child’s love for his mother as it is an introduction to how families deal with tragedy.

For example, take this devastating line of dialogue from Dooger: “She doesn’t want to talk about death, and my dad thinks talking about it will help us prepare and Marci thinks my mom takes care of us all because she’s dying. .”

Betke-Brunswick, who earned her MFA from the California College of Arts, says the decision to explore such painful themes through cartoonish bird figures was born out of a need to break away from the

matter of the subject. It helped them access those difficult emotions in a creative and cathartic way.

“It was too emotionally difficult to draw my dead mother,” says Betke-Brunswick. “I was like, ‘I can draw a horizontal penguin.’ Once I drew her as a penguin, I bonded with all of us as penguin characters.

Healing through caricature

But death isn’t the only big topic this feathered family tackles. Dooger also appears as genderqueer in the book. They explain to their father by reading on Wikipedia, but his answer is far from validated.

“I’ve had patients who have regretted their sex reassignment operations,” Dooger’s father replies.

Dooger reacts indignantly: “Did you even listen?

Betke Brunswick may laugh at that exchange now, but his father’s response was painful at the time. “It was not correct to say it”, they explain. “That’s not an appropriate response when coming out as genderqueer.”

This intimate exploration of gender identity is another area where drawing the characters as birds has creatively liberated Betke-Brunswick.

“I draw myself as a penguin – people don’t see a penguin and immediately think of a boy or a girl,” they say. “And you don’t have to spend time and energy figuring that out. I can just exist as a character.

In order to tap into this self-proclaimed figure, Betke-Brunswick, who works at the Boulder Public Library as the library coordinator, did not tap into the journal entries from the time described in the book. They didn’t need to write down what happened as it happened – the pain of loss remained fresh in their minds over the years.

“I didn’t write a diary,” they say. “It was all from memory. It’s very visceral. »

Ultimately, creating this book was a big step for the author in dealing with his grief, even if the sense of loss hasn’t really diminished.

“[It has been] healing in the sense of both being able to create something out of my emotions and spending time with it, because that was 13 years ago,” they say. “It felt good to both feel in the same room, to have a conversation together again. It’s something I’ve missed incredibly…it’s not something I can do anymore .

ON THE BOOKSHELF: Will Betke Brunswick: A List of Advantages and Disadvantages for Strong Feelings, Reading and Signing. 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, November 15, Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St. Tickets: $5:

Further reading

Five graphic memoirs that inspired Will Betke-Brunswick when writing A list of pros and cons for strong feelings:

From Truth With Truth: A Graphic Memoir by Lawrence Lindell. Lindell explores so many types of comic book forms in his memoir, mixing panels, full-page illustrations, silent pages, and overlapping words and images. It also includes photos and other documents. I am always inspired to experiment more when I read their work.

A! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry. Lynda Barry is one of my favorite designers. I love his monsters and demons, his big caps, and how absolutely hilarious his comics are.

Everything is beautiful and I’m not afraid by Yao Xiao. This book made me feel so many emotions! I was inspired by the intense feelings and calm storytelling.

The loneliness of a cartoonist from a distance by Adrian Tomine. I love holding this book in my hands. It’s so beautiful and deliberate. I love that it’s a graphic memoir about being a designer, not some other life event.

Super Late Bloomer: my beginnings in transition by Julia Kaye.I read this whole book in the Boulder library, while standing still in the middle of the graphic novel section. I usually prefer four-panel comics, but this book made me appreciate the three-panel format

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