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Agnes, Murderess by Sarah Leavitt

The 19th century Fraser Gold Rush attracted many gold hungry miners from California and the Pacific Northwest to Cariboo country in the colony of British Columbia. Comic artist Sarah Leavitt visited the area in 2007 and came across a brochure about Agnes McVee, an inn owner at 108 Mile House, located one hundred and eight miles north of Lilooet, mile zero of the much-travelled gold rush trail. Although Leavitt could not find any official records of Agnes McVee, legend has it that she was a murderess who, along with her husband and son-in-law, killed some 50 people. The comic artist claims that as she read about Agnes, she “felt surrounded by cold darkness, though the day was hot and sunny.” Leavitt had nightmares about Agnes and imagined the terror of her victims. Then Leavitt found herself researching 108 Mile House, filling sketch books with Agnes and reimagining her life and the source of her iniquity. The result is the hauntingly dark Agnes, Murderess, from the woman’s impoverished childhood on an isolated island in Scotland to her life as an innkeeper in a lawless land.

The first two thirds of the graphic novel is about Agnes’s life prior to her arrival at 108 Mile House. The book has the pace and makings of a 19th century gothic novel. Agnes has an upper class mother from London who dies when Agnes is a young child. Much to her family’s dismay, the mother married a common sailor from Scotland who took his pregnant wife to his childhood home and then sailed away. His mother, Gormul, houses his wife and daughter in a ramshackle croft. In the closest village, the people believe that Gormul is a witch with an evil eye, and they pay her any way they can to keep her away. Gormul teaches Agnes how to chop the heads off chickens as a young child, and Agnes like her grandmother is attracted to anything shiny, including knives. Her grandmother is a terrifying force, haunting Agnes throughout her life.

Agnes, Murderess

Sarah Leavitt

Freehand Books

ISBN 1988298474

Although a chilling character, Agnes is refreshingly complex and eschews the feminine frontier stereotypes. She is neither the kind-hearted sex worker nor the virtuous wife. Agnes is her own person, an entrepreneur who decides her own destiny. She only chooses to travel and partner with a man because it is safer and easier, and she makes this clear to her voyage companion. Agnes is most content when she is alone. In fact, it is the prospect of solitude and the absence of ghosts in the new world that draw Agnes to British Columbia’s interior, but it is her weakness for gold and the reign of lawlessness that give rise to most of her crimes. Unforgiving and prone to lashing out, Agnes is emotionally immature and devoid of compassion.

Leavitt uses slightly naïve, high contrast black and white drawings with occasional touches of grey to tell Agnes’s story. The starkness of the images inspires creepiness and leaves the reader with a sense of foreboding. Agnes’s stern disposition comes through in the panels. She is often frowning or on the verge of anger. The best panels and the most detailed are those depicting British Columbia’s rugged interior and landscapes.

Many years of research went into Agnes, Murderess. Leavitt convincingly captures the atmosphere of the gold rush in her portrayal of the miners who frequent the inn and the sex workers Agnes employs there. The comic artist also gives a plausible set of circumstances for how Agnes may have become a killer, from her upbringing in deprivation and isolation at the hand of a mean-spirited grandmother to living among ruthless and calculating goldminers. However, the best part of this story is the rich character of Agnes herself, and her single-minded independence. But rest assured, she is the type of person to be kept at a great distance. She is unpredictable and frightening, but that is the point.

In addition to Agnes, Murderess, Sarah Leavitt is the author of the graphic memoir Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me, which is in development as a feature-length animation. Leavitt teaches comics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

This review was previously posted at the Comics Journal.

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The Unknown by Anna Sommer

Born in Aarau, Switzerland, cartoonist Anna Sommer is the force behind The Unknown, translated from the German by Helge Dascher. The Unknown is Sommer’s fifth book, which was part of the 2018 Official Selection of Angoulême, France’s internationally renowned comics festival. This is no small feat, given that only five women cartoonists were among the forty-five bédéistes in the Official Selection.

Anna Sommer trained as a graphic artist and is known for her decoupage and illustrations, which have appeared in many European publications. The cartoonist presents her story in borderless black-and-white drawings without any texture or shading. The narrative alternates between the world of Helen and that of Wanda and Vicky. Sommer should be applauded for giving her women characters realistic body types.

The Unknown begins in the holiday season, with forty-something Helen discovering a newborn in her boutique dressing room. In the past, Helen and her husband had once considered adoption. Helen assumes the child’s mother will come back and keeps the newborn in her backroom, initially in a large cardboard box with clothing for blankets. She quickly becomes attached to the infant, whom she names Sylvester, but she keeps his existence a secret from everyone, including her husband Paul. When Helen raises the topic of adoption again, Paul tells her that they are too old for a baby. As a substitute, he gets Helen a dog. When he discovers Sylvester’s existence seven months later, he tells Helen that he wants the child gone. Heartbroken, Helen abandons the child in a food court.

Vicky and Wanda are boarding school roommates. Wanda convinces Vicky to turn tricks with her for extra money. The reader later learns that Vicky had an affair with their history teacher and is pregnant, something she attempts several times to sabotage but ultimately goes through with. Vicky binge-eats to put on weight so no one will suspect she is pregnant. Helen and Vicky are connected in more ways than one, which leads to pain and sorrow for both.

The Unknown By Anna Sommer

Conundrum Press

$17.00, paper, 104pp


Sommer makes her readers piece together Helen and Vicky’s connections. For readers who like puzzles, they will enjoy going through the book a number of times to check for clues. One of the first things the reader will do to make sense of the story is put together a timeline. However, the reader should be prepared for some distractions and ploys along the way. For starters, Sommer relies on the sensationalism of delivering of a baby in a change room, teen prostitution, and child abandonment and neglect as a distraction technique.

In terms of ploys, we know that Sylvester is found in Helen’s dressing room between Christmas and New Year’s, covered in afterbirth with his umbilical cord still attached. Yet, after receiving a Christmas present from her father, Vicky has the misfortune of having her water break in a park while a fountain is still running. In addition, when Helen abandons Sylvester at seven months, she is wearing boots, a coat, sunglasses, and a scarf on her head, the same scarf she wore throughout the winter, even though it is ostensibly July.

While The Unknown definitely has a satisfying “aha” moment, readers who have experience with newborns will be expected to suspend their belief to get through the story. As many new parents know, time can also be measured by a baby’s milestones. When Helen finds Sylvester in her dressing room, the newborn is already able to hold up his head, something that usually doesn’t happen until a baby is at least a month old. Most newborns also need to feed about eight to twelve times in twenty-four hours and rarely sleep more than a few hours at a time. Yet Helen leaves the newborn in a cardboard box, goes out for dinner and returns only once that night for a feeding. When Helen replaces the box with a crib, the baby is able to pull himself up, although that milestone doesn’t take place until about nine to twelve months. But, as we know, Helen abandons Sylvester at seven months. Sommer has possibly considered that most of her audience will not yet be parents or are only vaguely aware of these milestones.

Although Sommer has put in a lot of effort into cleverly devising her stratagem with time and other distractions, her story will not be appreciated by all. An audience familiar with the milestones of a baby may find that The Unknown boils down to a story that just can’t be believed.

This review has been crossposted at the Montreal Review of Books.

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Rat Time by Keiler Roberts

Fans of the Ignatz award-winning comic artist Keiler Roberts will not be disappointed by her latest autobiographical work, Rat Time. As in her other five books, the artist serves up a series of entertaining slice-of-life vignettes about the daily life of her family of three. Unlike her previous collection Chlorine Gardens, which addresses important milestones in Roberts’ life, Rat Time focuses on lighter subjects, such as pets, mementos, teaching and school moments, the author’s love of dolls, and some hilarious home mishaps. But there is an underlying tension throughout this volume—the struggle of someone coming to terms with health issues, while juggling multiple family and work-related responsibilities. Nevertheless, readers will still enjoy Roberts’ deadpan humor and wry wit mixed with a few poignant moments.

It will come as no surprise to fans that the animal-loving Roberts family has adopted a pair of rats, Mateo and Sammy. Afterdinner at the Roberts’ home has become “rat time” when Roberts and her daughter Xia play with their new pets. For Roberts, rat time is a type of alternative medicine. With new pets to love, she has something to feel optimistic about. It’s a way to forget about her recent multiple sclerosis diagnosis. When one of the rats dies, he is quickly replaced. Then the other dies, an untimely but slightly humorous reminder of illness and death that Roberts wants so much to avoid. The artist skips back in time to burying a beloved hamster under the outside doormat of her childhood home. But digging up the frozen earth proves too difficult, so her recently departed pet is only partially buried, leaving a conspicuous lump under the doormat, which is stepped on repeatedly by people coming and going. The humor turns darker when Xia informs her mother that the initial of Mateo and Sammy is “Ms.” like her teacher “Ms. Perkins.” Roberts then realizes that the initials also stand for multiple sclerosis.


Rat Time

Keiler Roberts

Yokama Press

ISBN 978-1-927668-70-2

Although the comic artist lets readers into her life, she is not one to overshare. Her husband is a regular character, but little about their personal relationship is ever disclosed. The same can be said about Roberts’ avowed bipolar diagnosis. While she does a funny series about the things that make her cry, (including nothing at all) followed by a visit to her psychologist, she sheds little light on her struggles with the disorder. In a vignette, she describes her hypomania to a counsellor as a time when she feels safe and content, which is at odds with what immediately comes to mind when most of us think of any type of mania. Roberts presents her universe in understated terms, devoid of high emotion. The comic artist moves seamlessly from one topic to another in much the same way as a conversation unfolds between two close friends, with tangents and natural segues between topics. Understatement also characterizes her approach to her art. She uses very simple thin lines and convincing proportions. Her drawings are at times ungainly, but still appealing, and she offers just enough realistic detail to draw the reader into the moment. This pared-down aesthetic appears to be an intentional choice rather than a lack of skill, as the reader sees in Roberts’ portrait of her dog Crooky, which is by far the most elaborate drawing in the entire volume.

In Rat Time, the comic artist reveals that she would like to write fiction. However, her character ends up looking a lot like her, “but with boobs.” Later in the series, she creates an exchange between two Barbies but laments that her fictional storylines always end up autobiographical. Fiction might be too artificial a construct for Roberts, who approaches her work with such honesty. She brings to light funny, ironic moments of everyday life that most of us overlook. The magic of her work is just how relatable those moments are, without any plotting or drama—two important components of fiction. Not only would her approach, wit and material not be as enjoyable written as fiction, but readers would not have that immediate access to her world through her art. Ultimately, Roberts’ work is best suited to comics.

This review has been crossposted at the Comics Journal.


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The Handbook to Lazy Parenting by Guy Delisle

Originally from Quebec City and a graduate of Sheridan College, Guy Delisle is a best-selling and award-winning cartoonist who lives with his wife and two children in France. Although his work is well-known in comics circles, he is better known in la Francophonie, where bédéistes are held in higher esteem than in the English-speaking world. Since 1996, he has published twenty-two books, eleven of which have been translated into English. The comic artist has a wide range of work from the objective, journalistic account of Hostage, Christophe André’s story of being kidnapped in Chechnya, to his highly acclaimed graphic travelogues, to his lighter, humorous comic strips on parenting. The cartoonist refers to the latter as his "Bad Dad" series. The Handbook to Lazy Parenting is the fourth and final instalment of the autobiographical series to be released in English.

In this collection of comic strips, as in the previous three, Delisle, a stay-at-home Dad, makes some questionable parenting decisions involving his children, Louis and Alice. In this final book, Delisle’s children are obviously older, and as life would have it, both children have developed their own interests. In the book’s opening strip, Delisle finds himself away in a dreary hotel room and calls his kids for company and to tell them that he has bought them a special treat. But Alice wants to talk to a friend and Louis is playing a video game. Feeling rebuffed, Dad grumbles and eats the treat himself.

Most adults would admit to using some form of flattery to get their children to do the things they are reluctant to do. But like most kids, Louis has picked up on this tactic and uses it to his advantage. Upon receiving a note for bad behaviour in his assignment book, he needs a parent’s signature and opts for the easy one—his father’s. When asking him to sign, Louis tells his father that the teacher is out to get him. Having had a similar teacher who hated his doodling, Delisle says that he can relate. Then, Louis strategically points out that Delisle won best comic at Angoulême, France’s premier comic award. Momentarily chuffed, Delisle dismisses the note and signs, but later must explain the signature to his wife.

The Handbook to Lazy Parenting
By Guy Delisle
Drawn & Quarterly

Good parenting is a virtue the world over, but at times our own competitive nature can get in the way of the child’s best interest. When Delisle goes on Alice’s school trip, he is unable to control his urge to answer the teacher’s questions. Although the teacher politely and repeatedly points out that the children are to answer, Delisle simply cannot resist. At the end of the day, he asks if there are any more trips. The teacher replies, "No, none."

My favourite strip in the series is Alice’s audition for the conservatory. Dad has the task of getting Alice ready for her audition and encourages her to stay calm. However, he thinks out loud and realizes that if she doesn’t get in, they would have to pay for private lessons and that would cost an arm and a leg. The realization sends Delisle into a tizzy. After a miscalculation of time, Dad is in a full blown panic attack, while Alice remains calm. Then in his final fatherly duty, he insists that she blow her nose. He holds a tissue and instructs her several times to blow harder. When the pair leaves, Dad tells Alice that first impressions count, unaware that snot that was meant for the tissue is now on the front of his sweater.

Delisle’s many years of cartooning experience comes through in this collection, particularly in the timing of his punchlines. He also skillfully makes his characters look active, and their expressions and body language correspond perfectly to what is being said in each frame. There is a pared-down quality to his art, but there is just enough detail in his panels to still draw the reader into the moment.

Although I prefer Delisle’s travelogues for their depth and story, this final instalment of the "Bad Dad" series will definitely appeal to anyone who likes the funnies section of the newspaper or needs some comic relief from parenting. Even though this instalment is not the funniest in the series, the heart-warming final strip more than makes up for it. Some warm fuzzies are guaranteed.

This review has been cross-posted at the Montreal Review of Books.

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