3 Panels is a monthly column examining graphic novels and their influences on everyday life.
I recently celebrated my eighth wedding anniversary with my husband over lunch at one of our favorite local restaurants. It’s an upscale French bistro where customers walk through aisles lined with wine crates – some open, some not – before entering the indoor dining area. At every visit, Kevin and I always choose to dine outdoors. Sitting on the covered patio, we stare at the boats bobbing in the nearby lake and guess which customers are most likely to get drunk and fall in. This time, Kevin and I were even more insistent that we sit outside. It was the first time we’d been to a restaurant since the pandemic began last year. Even though we were vaccinated, we wanted the safety the open-air provided despite the 100-degree heat.
I pulled on my sunglasses so I could stealthily watch the other patrons as we talked and sweated over our lunch plates. Kevin loves a good personal and professional assessment, so after several toasts, he asked me if I felt good about what I had accomplished so far this year. I talked about pursuing writing residencies and opting to take more time to rest. “But let’s pause for a moment,” I said. “I need you to look at that fan over there. The one that’s not on. It’s disgusting.” Kevin turned to look at it with a grim face. After a few seconds of silence, we just nodded, and I resumed talking.
This was such a banal moment, so perfectly mundane that it should’ve been easily forgotten. It wasn’t an incident that would be worth discussing at a party. Or I could bring it up, and someone would stare at me blankly before asking, “And? What’s the point?” I wouldn’t have given this moment a second thought if it hadn’t reminded me of a scene I had read days before in My Begging Chart by Keiler Roberts (Drawn & Quarterly, May 2021).
In the first few pages of My Begging Chart, Roberts lies in bed, the blanket pulled up to her neck, as she stares at the ceiling fan. “That fan is really dusty,” she thinks. “I’m not going to clean it. I’m not even going to intend to clean it. I wonder how many more times I will take naps in here before it starts to bother me.” Nothing else happens in the four-panel scene, but it’s startling in its relatability. Something as simple and inconsequential as a dusty ceiling fan will pull our attention, causing us to debate the energy and intention that will go into cleaning it. And then we might also consider what it says about us if we don’t clean it.
I didn’t consider that Kevin might not want to look at the grime-covered fan as we ate our lunch. But it seemed notable, so I pointed it out. And as I stared at the fan, I wondered if there was a correlation between the restaurant’s cleanliness and coronavirus transmission. I wondered if I should be that person and say something to our waiter. I thought about our bedroom ceiling fan and how it likely needed to be cleaned as well. I chose to say nothing and instead eat my mussels with chorizo. Halfway through My Begging Chart, Roberts does end up cleaning her fan, however. And it’s only now as I write this that I’m remembering that I should probably clean mine too.
Much of My Begging Chart is like the scene with the ceiling fan. It’s about the unremarkable moments in Roberts’ life; however, they still reflect on her as a mother, adult daughter, artist, and wife. These moments also alternate between being humorous, sad, and laden with personal introspection. In carefully balancing all of these aspects, Roberts’ autobiographical comics manage to be universally relevant to who we are as individuals trying to understand ourselves at our core.
In one scene, while Roberts and her daughter, Xia, are at what appears to be a coffee shop, a little girl comes up and hugs Roberts’ arm. She then mistakenly calls Roberts her mother. When the girl’s father escorts her away, Roberts asks Xia if she’s seen the girl’s mother before and if the mother is good-looking. It’s a moment of odd vulnerability and insecurity, but it’s not cringeworthy. It’s human. Who wouldn’t want to know if their doppelganger was attractive? Because then we could somehow equate that attractiveness to ourselves and receive the objective opinion many of us crave.
In another scene, Roberts, Xia, and her husband carve pumpkins for Halloween. It’s a familiar activity around this holiday. But in the last panel, Roberts asks, “If I bother to roast the seeds, will you eat them?” It’s a bit snarky and offers a taste of Roberts’ personality, but her question also interjects one of the taxing costs of parenthood, or specific to Roberts, motherhood: performing work that often goes unappreciated or dismissed. I have carved out quite a number of pumpkins and roasted the seeds to the delight of my family only to later watch the seeds go to waste.
Memoirs and autobiographies tend to highlight life’s most captivating moments – deaths, marriages, personal revelations, and crises. What’s refreshing about Roberts’ book is that it’s not about these at all — or to a smaller degree. She captures the strange, uneven rhythms of everyday life and holds them up to the light. This informs her book’s structure too. There are no chapters or definitive breaks between comics. It all runs together until the end. A page on Halloween becomes several pages where Roberts conducts interviews with Barbies, then multiple panels where she’s walking through the snow as she talks to a friend on a phone about how unfulfilling life is. The brevity of the scenes also allows Roberts to cover motherhood, mental health, and her multiple sclerosis diagnosis in the span of a few pages. My Begging Chart doesn’t offer deep commentary, and readers are left to discern Roberts’ intent from panels with scant dialogue. But when the book’s timeline begins to catch up to the pandemic, it takes on new meaning.
I hadn’t expected My Begging Chart to discuss the pandemic, but it’s silly to assume that it wouldn’t. The pandemic has encroached on every aspect of our lives for well over a year now. At some point, the past was going to catch up to the present in creative storytelling. So, when you flip a page to see Roberts and Xia standing in front of a beautiful home, Roberts’ tiny mask is jarring without context or explanation, but you quickly reconcile this detail in your mind as normal.
My Begging Chart’s relevancy evolves once you consider the pandemic’s impact. The mundanities that Roberts documents may initially be unimportant, but after rereading them with the knowledge and experience gained from a year of isolation (and death and grief and violence), we may assign them a greater value. And that’s why I enjoyed this book so much. It shows us how to cherish those little moments a bit more, how to hold onto the quiet more deeply as we step forward into a radically changed world.