(a digital book in progress by Tom Hart)
What is it to grieve when we have lost someone close to us, especially if that someone is our own child? Independent comics artist and teacher Tom Hart begins the reader on this extremely personal journey in the first chapter of a self described larger book dealing with the passing of his daughter, Rosalie. This first chapter is a piece of comic art that I can say is one of the most moving, beautifully expressed narratives I have come across this year.
A father and mother trying to escape grief in the recent passing of their young daughter is what this first book centers on. Life makes no sense anymore, but it is the struggle of not having closure that Hart describes in this chapter. He is walking backwards, reflecting/ recounting steps for himself, trying to realize how he and his wife are surviving in the present with the past not that distant, however he points out, “your eyes can only focus on one distance at a time…Background. Middleground. Foreground. Past. Present. Future”. The points of focus fluctuate from page to page, section to section, moment to moment, sometimes unflinchingly real, other times bending with memory and joy, other times becoming abstract and blurry. Hart seems to be asking the reader (and possibly himself), How does one make sense of time when meaning in life (and art) becomes null and void….how does one focus?
I want to think about that “focus” further in a few images and panels in RL ( which stands for Rosalie Lightning) that utilize a very moving visual artifact. Before getting there though I think it is important to talk first a bit about one sequence that struck me early on (page ten) that I believe is helpful in communicating to the reader the difficulty of understanding grief in a temporal sense (which I think Hart is also trying to aim for). If we can understand grief in that way, the power of the artifact makes sense.
On page ten, Hart uses the images of Rosalie (past), himself on the ground (present), and the darkness (future), punctuating each word with the exact image of the moment in an attempt to create a specific emotional connection, to open a new space of understanding for the reader. The space Hart creates is urging the reader to understand that the consuming feeling of grief can equate a rationale that there is no going back for anyone…there is the certainty of the present in grief and the uncertainty of the future, in which only grief may be the only thing to survive. The image is singular for each temporal moment: Rosalie=past, Tom=present, Darkness=future, and those singular images are precise, concrete; Even the uncertainty of the future is equal as the past or the present in composition for Hart. That which we see temporally is exact, there is no illusion. It has happened, it is happening, it will happen. This is what grief is or can be for Hart, inescapable temporal certainty. However, the past and the present can sometimes connect to bring things into “focus” and make the future perhaps bearable to a degree, if one wishes it to be, through an artifact. In this instance it is an acorn.
Rosalie as the past is her favorite book, her laugh, her smile…her love of acorns based on “My Friend Totoro”. The acorn is the artifact for Hart, the way to connect with the recent past (Rosalie), to touch something that Rosalie would have touched, admired, understood as “magic”, loved. At first he and his wife roam the streets collecting acorns. Hart compactly communicates grief as the words wrap the image of acorns: “ Collecting Acorns. Hiding. Crying. Collapsing”, allowing the space and the words to breathe around the scattered acorns, showing space that is filled with pause of uncertainty. In the final page of the chapter, we have pause again for uncertainty in the future as Hart communicates to the reader “Now its mommy and daddy who have to be careful. Avoid the despair in the past–in the future–walk. Stay focused. Collect acorns. Be careful”. And on that final two words “be careful”, Hart leaves us with the image of a couple in an uncertain, but comforting embrace, faces insomniatic, weary, tired, searching–they in body far to one side of the rectangle panel while the words float in a white space all alone opposite and little below. But the artifact has opened a door, and will always open a door, allowing for hope to survive.
If you would like to know more about RL and the process, I encourage you to navigate the blog after finishing the actual work and read about the process, as I think it is of great important to understand the why of this project, which can serve to help many people who have also been touched by tragedy of this magnitude.