3 Panels is a monthly column examining graphic novels and their influences on everyday life.
Every year my parents remind me that I’m getting closer to middle age. It’s both a joke and an indictment. I’m no longer the kid who used to breeze through her track and field events, or bounded easily up the frightfully steep grade of our street as I journeyed home after school. The slow decline of my youthful faculties amuses them. It is also a reminder of death – something they caution me to keep in the back of my mind. “You’re only getting older. And then…”
The “and then…” bothers me, even though I believe in an afterlife. I’m not quite comfortable thinking about what happens in the After. I don’t want to think about what it takes to get to the After. But I’m mostly bothered by “and then…” because it seems like my parents are booting me out of the last years of my thirties and then skipping over the middle part of my life and all its possibilities. “And then” condenses life down to youth and then death. There’s no consideration for the passage of time or all the life we can live between youth and death. Middle age is just as ripe with adventure and complexities as every other phase of life.
This earnest exploration of the next phase of life is why I’ve taken to reading books that focus on who we are in our late thirties, forties, and fifties. I want to see versions of myself that we are socially conditioned to shy away from or suppress. What kind of creator will I be once I’ve checked off everything on my “to accomplish” list? Will I still be interested in the same activities? Will I still find purpose in my work in my forties? What kind of mother will I be when my kids are grown and gone?
In trying to answer the last question, though it might be several decades away, I recently chose to read Moms (Drawn & Quarterly, Aug. 2020; tr. Janet Hong) by Yeong-shin Ma The book follows the lives of four Korean middle-aged mothers with varying relationship statuses. Lee Soyeon, the novel’s main protagonist, is a divorcee whose adult son lives with her. Through periodic flashbacks, we discover that her husband’s infidelity and gambling addiction led to their divorce. Without much money to her name, Soyeon works at a cleaning company where she and the all-women cleaning crew regularly endure abuse and sexual harassment from their manager. After hours, Soyeon and her friends spend time eating, drinking, and gossiping. These scrappy, unapologetic women seek companionship from men with mixed success. Even Soyeon entertains a decade-long relationship with an older man who takes advantage of her affection and loneliness.
Moms was originally published in Korea in 2015, but the recent English translation of this manhwa has brought the stories of middle-aged women to the forefront when they are often left in the background — or dismissed altogether. Interestingly, Ma based his graphic novel off his mother’s diary entries about her life and the lives of her friends. These are real women and real stories of depression, loneliness, spite, and aspiration. At its core, Moms is about who mothers are at a “certain age.” There is also a subtle examination of how our worth is mistakenly rooted in our ability to attract another person’s desire. By centering the book around women, especially mothers, Ma asks a very powerful question: How do we exercise our potential to be so much more apart from everyone and everything we’ve ever known?
There’s no easy answer to that question. Our self-perception undergoes massive adjustments throughout life. How we process our identity changes and what we value shifts. And for many, like author Anne Mette Kærulf Lorentzen, aging and maturing also means shucking off the heteronormative frameworks that don’t apply to us. Lorentzen’s When I Came Out (SelfMadeHero, October 2020; tr. Charlotte Barslund) is an autofiction retelling of her exploration of sexuality and gender identity.
Lorentzen’s debut graphic novel follows Louise, a forty-something woman who, at the novel’s start, is dodging her husband’s phone calls and texts while she has a tryst with another woman in a hotel room. The book then rewinds to the more recent past, where Louise’s life is a series of compromises: adopting a feminine style when she’d rather dress like the men around her, buying a cat she doesn’t want just to please her children, and attending couple’s therapy sessions when she’d rather not be married to her husband. Louise’s diary entries intercut scenes of her daily life to reveal that she’s hiding sexual urges for women. These entries serve as a release valve for Louise, but for readers, Louise’s diary offers a more intimate and self-effacing portrait.
The arrival of a childhood friend challenges Louise’s desires. Through a bit of awkwardness and revelation, she slowly accepts her attraction to women. The process of publicly admitting her sexuality is painful and marked with many missteps. Lorentzen tells her story against a pastel backdrop that softens the narrative and elevates its serious but lighthearted nature. The anthropomorphic characters, like Louise and her hare family or her bear best friend, add a subtle charm and whimsy that disarm the reader. This artistic styling also establishes distance between the reader and the characters on the page that allows the former to better relate to the novel’s characters. Additionally, Lorentzen does a remarkable job of not ending the story with a neat bow but instead focusing on the internal work required in coming out and how complicated that process can be.
Lorentzen writes about a sort of midlife crisis that is a quest for authenticity. It resonates more with the core of who we are than stories about the kind of midlife crisis involving red Corvettes and tight leather pants. In a similar noble vein is Okay, Universe: Chronicles Of A Woman In Politics (Drawn & Quarterly, expected December 2020; tr. Helge Dascher) by Valérie Plante and illustrator Delphie Côté-Lacroix. Plante is the current Mayor of Montreal and she recounts her political origin story through her alter ego, Simone Simeoneau, in Okay, Universe. I expected a rehashing of all the ways that politics have been unkind to Plante since she was elected in 2017. As the first woman to hold Montreal’s mayoral position, she undoubtedly has a toe-curling story or two about the opposition she’s faced during her political rise. However, what Plante offers instead is a very subdued story about one woman’s foray into local politics.
The novel opens with a crisis of heart. Simone gathers around a campfire with her old college friends and states that she wants to make real change in the world. Later overlooking a placid lake, she declares, “Okay, Universe… I’m ready for a new challenge!” That challenge unfolds swiftly across 104 pages once Simone accepts a candidacy with the municipal party Action/Reaction Montreal and begins campaigning for affordable housing, equal opportunities, and correcting disparities in her community. Okay, Universe documents her campaign meetings, neighborhood canvassing activities and includes mini-profiles of her campaign volunteers, before culminating with her fateful election night. Côté-Lacroix illustrates Simone’s journey in soft, but vivid colors that embolden Montreal’s social and political landscape. Politics often offers a sharp hand to those involved, yet Okay, Universe gently guides its readers instead while encouraging women interested in a political career.
Sitting down with these three books, I’m struck by how each one offers a touch of ambiguity amid the journey of self-discovery. What we hope for ourselves and who we become changes from one year to the next. But what these graphic novels clearly show is that women, whether of a certain age or not, are far beyond the social restrictions placed upon them.