Lives at the End of the Line: Aging, Elegy, Comics, and Care
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In her introduction to Extraordinary Bodies, Rosemarie Garland Thomson adds, to a long list of the different forms disability might take, the observation that “everyone is subject to the gradually disabling process of aging,” a fact, she notes, that “many people who consider themselves able-bodied are reluctant to admit” (13-14; my emphasis). My presentation proposes to examine four recent North American visual memoirs of aging, each of which deploys a range of graphic resources to i) grapple with the facts of parents’ disintegrating bodies and, especially, their disintegrating minds; ii) witness the increasingly complex demands these deteriorations make on available forms and economies of care; and iii) specifically shape comics’ aesthetics to the frequent uncanniness of dementia’s incursions. If, as Amelia DeFalco claims, aging is a vastly under-theorized site of cultural difference (xii-xvi), comics – until recently associated almost exclusively with youth- and counter-cultures – stubbornly keeps the sight and the sights of aging front-and-centre. Joyce Farmer in Special Exits: A Graphic Memoir (2010); Sarah Leavitt in Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me (2010); Roz Chast in Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant (2014); and Dana Walrath in Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass (2016) channel their own and their subjects’ creative energy in visual narratives that document their parents’ physical and mental deterioration. I focus on the artists’ deployment of comics’ resources – including its resistance to coherence (Hatfield xiii), its formal and metaphoric mimicking of “the procedures of memory” (Chute 4), and especially its capacity to represent hybrid subjectivities (5) – for their affective potential. My particular interest is the tricky territory where visualizing the increasingly “complex embodiment” (Siebers 25-6) of aging selves potentially defuses the sometimes ugly emotions that care-giving prompts, refining and re-storying those emotions as empathy and compassion.