Keiler Roberts doesn’t dress her autobiographical comics up in the trappings of knowingly contrived storytelling structure. Their relatability lies in their unrepentant honesty and naturalistic composition; in her frankness and often self-deprecating approach to capturing the very essence of the moment on the page. From an audience perspective they feel as close to reflecting the raw actuality of the experiences she depicts as is possible within a comic strip, rather than a version of events drastically retooled for tidier narrative impact. That uncompromising candour is at the very heart of her work’s appeal and its empathetic nature.
We’ve looked at her books before at Broken Frontier in her self-published Miseryland and in Sunburning, the first Koyama Press collection of her comics. They revolve around the family life of Keiler, husband Scott, their daughter Xia and dog Crooky; a quartet whose quirks and idiosyncrasies have become very familiar to us over the years. Longer-term readers will be pleased to know that is once again the case in Chlorine Gardens but here the graphic medicine aspect of Roberts’ work is given a greater focus, with a middle section that deals with her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, reactions to it and its ramifications.
As ever with a Keiler Roberts comic, tone can range from the matter-of-fact (often in terms of her own health issues) to the profoundly affecting; witty explorations of the minutiae of life are juxtaposed with its rites of passage. A strip on our favourite things is brimming with keenly observed truths – how smell relates to memory, how declaring your favourite meal to be “leftovers” is a far more valid statement that it may seem at first, or just the acceptance of the simple joy of comics as a community – while a visual essay on the subject of “too much of a good thing” veers into an existential soliloquy on creativity.
Interspersed throughout are landmark events or parts of her life including giving birth to Xia, living with bipolar, her MS diagnosis (told with a sense of quiet calm that only serves to underline its stark reality further) and a segment dealing with her grandfather’s death that simultaneously emphasises the universal inescapability of that one great equaliser while also bringing home a very personal vision of family and the ties that bind.
Roberts jumps timeframes throughout, presenting longer strips of fleeting dark comedy (a story about a schoolmate who she cheated out of a weirdest-looking stuffed toy prize evolves into an amusing anecdotal piece on the injustices of fate’s casual whims) next to one-off illustrations about Xia and the unexpected but endearing precociousness of childhood. Strips flow into each other without the boundaries of titles or endpoints, ensuring the book feels like a non-linear but all-encompassing patchwork of life in the Roberts household.
Roberts’ clear, uncomplicated visuals always have an expressive clarity and the most telling of visual characterisation, and Chlorine Gardens is another collection of incisive short strips from one of the finest autobio practitioners working in the medium. While every Keiler Roberts book is an accessible whole in itself, Chlorine Gardens is a perfect starting point for those unfamiliar with her comics. After all these years of reading her slice-of-life work the attachment the reader feels for the Roberts clan is genuine, heartfelt and tangible, and that may just be Keiler Roberts’ greatest creative triumph of all.
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Review by Andy Oliver