PRIDE MONTH 2023! Earlier this year we were privileged at Broken Frontier to run an exclusive creator commentary in our ‘Inside Look’ series on Will Betke-Brunswick’s A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings. Published by Tin House the book is a graphic memoir that primarily explores themes of familial loss, with a notable secondary storytelling strand about Betke-Brunswick’s coming out as genderqueer firmly embedded within it.
A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings is an account of the last ten months of Betke-Brunswick’s mother Elizabeth’s life after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in their sophomore year at college. It records how a loving and incredibly close-knit family came together during these intensely difficult times, and reflects on Betke-Brunswick’s own relationship with their mother. It’s a beautifully structured story that covers not simply the graphic medicine elements of a cancer diary (once removed) but also delicately depicts with thoughtfulness and a meditative quality a family preparing for the inevitable.
There are two factors in play here that allow the reader a more direct connection with Betke-Brunswick’s experiences. Firstly the characters all take on an anthropomorphic avian presentation; a visual storytelling trick that through an indefinable and ironic process always seems to emphasise the humanity of characters all the more. (Spoiler warning: there’s a heavy penguin element in these pages!). From a creator viewpoint, of course, this is a technique that can help them to take one step back from the pain of a more literal depiction when it comes to memoir. Something Betke-Brunswick acknowledges in that creator commentary.
Secondly, while there is a main linear throughline, Betke-Brunswick intersperses vignette-style flashbacks through the book that are either charmingly anecdotal (their mother’s unique approach to helping with maths homework, for example) or list-style illustrations (family nicknames, or art within the house in years past). It also allows them to detail their growing understanding of their genderqueer identity over the years.
That this is a debut long-form work makes its confident and adept manipulation of comics’ relationship with the passage of time all the more impressive. Betke-Brunswick’s art is not overly elaborate in A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings which perfectly suits and encapsulates the raw honesty and humanity of this quietly sophisticated book. Ultimately, this is a graphic memoir that, for all the sadness of its main narrative thrust, is also full of love, acceptance and kindness.
Will Betke-Brunswick (W/A) • Tin House, $18.95
Review by Andy Oliver