0 com

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.

Read more »
0 com

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.


Read more »