Daniel Elkin: Sometimes a simple pronoun can shape how the personal is understood and how that forms its relationship with the universal. Not only do pronouns create identity (in terms of identification for the individual, as well as placing people in context), but pronouns can also create community. Turning a singular possessive pronoun into a plural possessive pronoun changes ownership from the person to the group. What was “mine” can become “ours” with a simple grammatical trick.
Our Mother by Luke Howard takes what is a specifically personal story — trying to come to terms with the ramifications of growing up with a mother with anxiety disorder — and makes it a story for us all. Howard accomplishes this not just through the clever trick of pronoun manipulation in the title, but also by making a powerful work of art, a comic that speaks to its reader through humor, innuendo, inference, and polished craft. Our Mother contains seemingly disparate stories that coalesce upon reflection; it is a book that demands a second reading moments after finishing the first as all of its pieces become the full story once you understand where you’ve been.
Howard even references this experience at one point in his book by having characters paddle a canoe past their future selves, only to have that moment make narrative sense when the future becomes the present. “What will happen” informs “what has occurred” and we make sense of the” now” by understanding the “then”.
And this seems to ultimately be the thematic center of this book. A person can only contextualize their childhood experiences when they become an adult. The process of looking back creates a new understanding; we count on our future selves to make meaning of our present — a present that is in the past but informs who we are today.
Layer parsing the universality of this experience in the midst of telling a unique story, and that approximates the emotional challenge of reading Our Mother.
It’s a challenge worth undertaking, though, because Our Mother is an incisively transcendent exploration of the effects of anxiety disorder. It works in a structure that seems dispassionate, yet ends up poignant and ardent as it gets to the truth behind trying to comprehend that which is incomprehensible. It sticks because of its humanity; it punches through the shut doors in our brains in welcoming ways, opening passages to a collective understanding of what has happened, how it shapes us, and where it leaves us as we step forward. Sometimes we become who we are by what has happened to us, not through what we have chosen to occur.
In this realization and its manifestation, Our Mother is a spectacular comic book.
Ray Sonne: Upon first look, Our Mother seems like a collection of genre subversions–an interesting consideration because genre, or all media, conventions exist under our patriarchal and therefore father-centered society. Although it shouldn’t, a comic honoring the influence of the creator’s mother comes off as subversive within itself. Combined with Luke Howard’s many-paneled and multidimensional approach, Our Mother becomes a musing on the legacy of family and mental illness.
The first vignette, which parodies a noir story with a private detective protagonist, remains among the most striking throughout the rest of the book. Unlike all other sections, the characters do not return and the storyline doesn’t continue. In that, it becomes Howard’s thesis statement: with genetic mental illness, a person’s life — even their independent adult life — is pre-decided to endure a particular kind of harsh suffering.
Howard’s lines are very selective in this vignette. The father and mother who meet with the protagonist seem entirely kindly. They consistently smile, their upbeat dialogue clashes with the protagonist’s try-hard sardonic queries, and their faces are wizened and softened. If not for the ludicrousness of the situation and the lack of reason given for them asking the protagonist to give their daughter a nervous breakdown (“It’s just tradition, dear.”), one could almost believe that they truly have good reasons for their intentions.
Except, of course, they’re not really parents. And the nameless protagonist isn’t really a PI. “It’s just what I do. It’s what I’ve always done,” the protagonist says while smoking a cigarette, a strange personification of the havoc depression and generalized anxiety disorder wreaks on so many lives. “So long as there’s space and time, I’ll be here. In the shadows…”
But if the noir parody is Howard’s thesis statement, the heart of Our Mother lives in the next story. A little girl’s father tells her that he’s leaving her and her mother because “she won’t talk to me anymore.” The passage of time between the several panels shows the father talking even as he’s in the airplane, about to fly away. This evokes how out-of-control the situation is to the daughter, who is stuck with whom she calls her “new Mom.”
Except “new Mom” isn’t much of a mom, at all. The daughter becomes caretaker, from keeping both of them fed to trying to cure the mother of her misery. But no matter what the daughter does, the mother continues to recline on the couch like a dead fish, her limbs extended like heavy elastic that tightens itself around her daughter like her illness tightens around their increasingly messy home. There’s also something remarkable about “new Mom”’s breasts, which lose the shape of breasts. They’re definitely not sexualized based on their ugliness, but they protrude obviously in each panel that they appear. There’s almost the suggestion that they have lost their motherly quality along with the mother herself.
In these stories, we see how familial mental illness impacts the child ultimately in two ways. While growing up and while being grown up. Howard confirms in some of the last pages of Our Mother, using childhood photos of himself and his mother, that these tales very much take from his own experience, despite that almost all of his protagonists are women. Although made by a man, Our Mother remains undeniably female-centered until the end, and its theme of mental illness sadly universal.