Reviewed by Nora Hickey and Amaris Feland Ketcham
From walking the dog to baking brownies, online shopping to making crafts in the basement, My Begging Chart by Keiler Roberts reveals a modern domesticity. Set in an undefined, urban-ish, walkable neighborhood, Roberts’ seventh collection of diary comics centers on moments of her life as she deals with the slow progression of days. We first meet Keiler as a mom to her young daughter Xia, whose imaginary friend annoys Keiler—although we soon find out she has one of her own. Right away, it is clear that Keiler is sardonic and observant, perhaps unhappy but buoyed by the everyday interactions of her life.
In the graphic novel Roberts’ lays out a life full of activities and subjects that will be familiar to many American readers. We follow Keiler through shopping trips, meal prep, video calls, and spending time with her family, mainly with her daughter. Roberts delineates a life that is not filled with dramatic urgency, yet it is one that pulses with moments of joy—or irritation. These thorny happenings and feelings feel familiar in their ordinariness, but also specific to Keiler and her milieu. Keiler’s personality is revealed through everyday interactions, not through a linear story with an inciting incident, climax, and resolution. It isn’t until a third into the book that we learn Keiler is dealing with multiple sclerosis. And, this revelation is done in a typical way of Roberts—subtly, with humor—as she alters a free 5k shirt from an awareness run hosted by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society from reading “together we are stronger” to “fall together we are.”
We get glimpses of her life as an artist, a wife, a daughter. However, none of these identities is dominant. The emotional through line is between Keiler and her daughter, Xia, who we come to know as her own character. Xia’s age isn’t specifically stated, but she appears to be both youthfully idealistic and agedly wise, with occasional zingers in dialogue. After a spontaneous hug, Xia steps back and asks, “Did you enjoy that hug, Mommy?” Keiler responds, “Sure,” to which Zia replies, “Good, because it was the last time.” Much of their interactions surround parenting activities—playing make believe games with dolls, creating worksheets to fill time, foot and back rubs—and always with an edge of realistic sarcasm. It seems to mostly be a fulfilling life, and yet, there is a droll gloom that permeates the proceedings. But this isn’t really a story about parenting, or any one thing, like so many well received graphic memoirs of today are. Roberts has described her work as “vignettes of meaningless experiences,” but this meandering, nonlinear work feels honest in its making mountains out of molehills.
Roberts sticks to an even panel layout for much of the book, employing a simple grid. Some comics scholars have argued that using a consistent grid, such as the “waffle-iron” six-paneled page, makes a work seem more trustworthy due to its regularity and thus is more frequently used in autobiographical comics to gain the confidence of the audience. Every few pages, Roberts includes a splash page, where the art fills a single, full page. Many of these are silent, working to break up the reading, acting like a kind of palette cleanser while creating sections within the work.
The wobbly panel borders and shaky, sometimes scratchy line contribute more than just to a visual style: the sketchy line acts to add a sense of veracity to moments portrayed in the book. The art can appear hastily drawn at first glance due to the line quality—if one ignores the careful proportions and perspective, or the intricate details of architecture and interiors. But this shaky line can trick the viewer into thinking that the art is unpolished, and thus more spontaneous, as one might expect from a diary. Thus the book feels more in the moment, rather than drafted and re-drafted.
This art plays on the style of confessional comics of the 1980s and 1990s, some of which were made by amateurs, their naive style reinforcing the conceit that these were stories someone needed to tell, regardless of their draftsmanship. After all, the urgency of the diary as a record only requires pen to paper, life rendered in the simplicity of black and white. One familiar with the genre might see echoes of John Porcellino’s poignant diary comix and Ariel Schrag’s sharp-eyed graphic accounts of high school. But Roberts marks her own distinct territory, one in which moments bleed together in an enticing blur of days. Along with Keiler, we sniff the head of a favorite old doll, watch a magnet fall from the fridge right into the dog’s water dish, and question the name of off-brand M&Ms.
Naturally, in comics, the reader’s attention is drawn to the art—the immediacy of image reigns supreme. What emerges after more passes through the comic, however, is Robert’s impressive ability at dialogue. And, there is a lot of it—nearly all writing occurs in speech balloons. Roberts’ characters deliver wry observations, and many of these deadpan “punchlines” occur at the end of a scene. The humorous and occasionally portentous lines are often our only indicator that a scene has ended; there are no chapters, or other markers of transition. For example, in one scene, Keiler explains to Xia that she has to be out late for a meeting, one where she “hope[s] to learn something important.” Xia responds with a slight smirk, “Like what? How to control your behavior?”
It’s unclear in what time period this takes place, but the ennui and flatness can’t help but conjure the isolation of quarantine during COVID-19. Face masks make a brief appearance toward the end of the book. Roberts, it appears, has harnessed the existing mundanity that the pandemic has exacerbated. The lack of narration, reflection, context, and separation of scenes all contribute to an interesting reading experience—one akin to scrolling on someone’s social media page. Like Tumblr, Instagram or a blog, My Begging Chart is both honest and curated at the same time; the audience is granted the illusion of access to Keiler’s life. We are witness to her deep sadness as she breaks down in the quiet space of her basement, but we never get to see a cause or aftermath—the reader is held at arm’s length. It is in her phone conversations with an often faceless other that we get the most poignant revelation: “for the last three years, I’ve been dealing with my own bad news, and I swear, the only way not to feel bad about the state of the world is to have your own personal disaster.” And then Keiler, and the audience with her, moves on to discussion of coleslaw. And isn’t that like life? In one minute the overwhelming nature of life is superseded by something as simple as a fourth of July picnic staple.
Amaris Feland Ketcham and Nora Hickey teach Autobiographix and Poetry Comics at the University of New Mexico Honors College. Through this course, they have hosted a variety of comics creators in Albuquerque for events on and off campus. They have presented “Get Inked: Creative Nonfiction Comics as Cultural Critique” at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference. Active in the Albuquerque zine community, Amaris and Nora make and teach zines as well as other handmade, creative nonfiction book forms.