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A funny way to deal with death

Child bereavement and Alzheimer's may not sound like material for a comic strip, but graphic books can explore human pain with honesty and wit

Nicola Streeten's son Billy died in 1995, when he was two years old. He had been undergoing surgery for a heart problem diagnosed less than two weeks previously. Neither Streeten nor Billy's father John Plowman is religious, but they tried almost everything else to help deal with their grief: bereaved parent support groups, relentless DIY, long walks around north London, extreme haircuts and, most successfully, therapy. The pair eventually married, moved to Lincolnshire, and had a second child, Sally, who is now 14.

"When Billy died," Streeten recalls, "people said, 'How do you cope? I can't imagine it.' When I reflected years later on how exactly we did get through that time, I asked myself how best I could explain it to other people: that grief isn't always about sadness, and how I don't still wake up crying every day."

The result of that reflection is Streeten's new graphic novel, Billy, Me & You, a moving and often unexpectedly funny memoir, in comic form, of the couple's grief and subsequent recovery. Streeten started drawing in the years after Billy's death, took a Masters degree to learn how to transform her illustrations into a lengthy narrative, and then began to self-publish the story in the comic magazine she created with her daughter: Liquorice, which is now on its seventh issue. Streeten says she wanted to "make the reader cry with a comic", but also to create "a dead baby story that is funny".

Graphic memoirs have been winning plaudits for a while now, from Art Spiegelman's devastating Holocaust memoir Maus, to Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, about her coming of age in revolutionary Iran. Chris Ware created the semi-autobiographical character Quimby, a depressive mouse, while Raymond Briggs – best known for children's tales such as The Snowman – wrote a touching graphic biography of his own parents, Ethel and Ernest. Most of these melancholy titles share the theme of bereavement.

Also published this month is Tangles, the Canadian writer and illustrator Sarah Leavitt's book about her mother's struggle with Alzheimer's, and her death in 2004. Midge Leavitt, a Harvard-educated teacher and intellectual, was diagnosed with the disease when she was 52, and quickly became frustrated by the simplest of sentences. Terrifying for her, it was shattering for her family – and yet, like Billy, Me & You, Tangles finds lightness in the darkest of situations. Sarah, her father and her sister often found themselves laughing at Midge's strange behaviour, thus leavening the moments of upset and sorrow.

"I started writing about my mum right after she got sick," Leavitt explains. "It was what really pushed me to start writing and drawing comics. I'd always been interested in writing, but this was something I really wanted to write about. I wanted the book to be funny in parts, not just a horrible story about how much I suffered – because that's not true. And I didn't want it to be a movie-of-the-month inspirational tale about how everybody pulled together and survived this traumatic experience. I planned a prose memoir of her illness, but the more I worked on it, the more I realised that I wanted to do it in the graphic novel form."

This choice not only makes Leavitt and Streeten's experiences more accessible to readers potentially intimidated by death and disease, but it also keeps their books away from the "misery-lit" ghetto. "I really liked Angela's Ashes," says Streeten, "and Justine Picardie's book about her sister's death, If the Spirit Moves You, and John Diamond's [cancer memoir] C. I can see the value of that sort of literature and I kept written journals, but my practice isn't writing. My language is drawing... It's such a fantastic vehicle for telling stories that contain slightly more difficult subject matter."

Comics are traditionally thought of as a male medium, centred around the superhero titles created and consumed (mostly) by young men. So when Streeten started to attend comics events, her first question was, "Where are the women?" With the artist and curator Sarah Lightman, she set up Laydeez Do Comics, a group led by women that gathers to showcase and discuss comics, focussing on autobiographical works similar to Billy, Me & You and Tangles. One of the group's first discoveries was Isabel Greenberg, a 23-year-old illustrator from London, who recently won the 2011 Observer/Jonathan Cape/Comica graphic short story prize.

"Women have always been involved in comics," says Leavitt, who was also a recent Laydeez Do Comics guest speaker, "but they just never got as much attention as men. [The artist] Trina Robbins has written a history of women's comics, and there were women who worked for the mainstream comic companies or newspapers very early on. Many of the cartoons in the early days of The New Yorker were drawn by women." The New Yorker's current and longstanding art editor is, in fact, Spiegelman's wife, Françoise Mouly.

Streeten and Leavitt share an illustrative style. Neither is a trained artist, and their work's lack of superheroesque polish somehow matches the raw emotional content of the books. Both writers are unflinching not only in their self-examination, but also in their portrayal of family and friends. It's clear that many of the people in their respective orbits were uncomfortable or ill-prepared to deal with bereavement, and would often say or do the wrong thing – or, worse, say and do nothing at all.

"We don't know how to behave when someone tells us they've got cancer, for example," says Streeten. "It's discomfiting and awkward. We haven't learned the etiquette, because illness is kept in the hospital, and psychotherapy is thought of as a one-on-one affair with the analyst. Taken out of that context, we don't know what to do with it." Hence, perhaps, why misery-lit is these days given its own compartmentalised section in bookshops.

In one memorable episode of Streeten's book, she comes across the famous "five stages" of grief, reduced to a single page in a women's magazine. She checks off the stages in her head and concludes that she has completed most of the process. Of course, grief is not simple enough to be reduced to a five-stage plan. "There is a pressure for you to fix yourself, to get over something," she says. "Grief is seen as temporary, but it's really about making it fit with the rest of your life."

Though no more religious than Streeten, when her mother died at the end of six long years with Alzheimer's, Leavitt took comfort in reciting the mourner's Kaddish prayer every day for 11 months, in accordance with Jewish tradition. It helped her to manage her grief, she says, though of course it did not cure her. "We want to get through things," she agrees, "and we want them to be over. 'Your mum died. You grieved. Now it's over.'"

"I don't think grief ever goes away," says Streeten, "but why would you want it to? It's very interconnected with memories. It's not necessarily debilitating. It can manifest itself in fruitful ways, like a charity – or a book."


'Billy, Me & You' by Nicola Streeten is published by Myriad Editions, £12.99

'Tangles' by Sarah Leavitt is published by Jonathan Cape, £12.99