Motherhood and apple pie

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Some great graphic novels and comics have come into the library recently on the themes of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood.

Kate Brown’s graphic novel Fish+Chocolate provides three short stories around the theme of motherhood. The third of these, Matryoshka is the most powerful. With beautiful, intense and at times brutal imagery, it is the heart-rending account of a woman struggling to cope with the aftermath of miscarriage. It’s in no way a medical account, but the moving depictions of an alienating encounter with a well-meaning workmate, devastating recollections and hallucinations of loss and grief go some way towards helping an outsider (health professional or otherwise) empathise with the woman’s experience. Here’s a stunning example of how graphic art might contribute to narrative medicine. You can see samples of the artwork in a review of all three of the stories at Forbidden Planet.

Entirely different in tone is Francesca Cassavetti’s The Most Natural Thing in the World, a deceptively light-hearted and charming take on a young couple’s journey from deciding to have a baby, trying to get pregnant, pregnancy, child-birth, through to coping with the new baby. It’s deceptive because, despite the comic (pun intended) tone, it doesn’t shy away from the emotional roller-coaster (for both parents) of pregnancy and childbirth, yet still manages not to be so worthy that it alienates non-parents or so scary as to terrify prospective new parents. Even without the great drawing, that’s quite an achievement.

Offering the male perspective on childbirth is the comic Miracleman (issue No. 9), with an episode entitled “Scenes from the nativity”. Miracleman (known as Marvelman in the UK version) is a superhero who was created by a scientist as a result of secret experiments with alien DNA. In this episode Miracleman rescues his heavily pregnant wife from an attack and flies her to an isolated location where he delivers their baby.

During the birth it is the father’s comments and thoughts that are to the fore as he delivers the baby and tries to reassure the mother: “yes… I can see the fontanelle and it doesn’t feel as if the cord’s tangled. Just keep breathing.” As the baby is delivered, he thinks about the scientist who created him in a laboratory: “Did it feel like this when you took the first cell scrapings? Did it feel like this as you watched it divide and replicate as you hauled me dripping from the tank?”. He concludes that for all the trauma, the natural birth of his own child is an act of redemption: “For here is blood. Here is violence… redeemed by love, by this pure act of creation.”

It has been suggested that the poignant quality of the scenes was a result of the writer Alan Moore’s experience of the birth of his own child. This issue of the comic gained some notoriety for the very explicit nature of the birth scenes, which, along with the use of some clinical language certainly suggest an eye witness account of childbirth. The significance of the Nativity is that the baby goes on to become the first naturally born superhero.

From the sublime to the seemingly ridiculous in four easy steps. My final offering is Al’s Baby, which was first published as a comic in serial form in 2000AD with Judge Dredd, but is now available as a graphic novel of the complete story. This is another very male view of pregnancy and motherhood, but with a twist. The violent gangster Al Bestardi, known as Al the Beast, is a hitman for mafia boss Don Luigi, and also married to his daughter, Velma. Al tells Velma that The Don has issued him with an ultimatum: either provide him with a grandson or “he’s gonna fit me up wit’ a pair a’ concrete overshoes!” Unfortunately for Al, Velma’s not willing to comply, she points to a newspaper headline that reads “Florida man gives birth” and suggests that Al could do it himself. At his wit’s end, Al goes for a consultation, where the doctor (held at gunpoint) unsurprisingly agrees to ‘remove a section of your intestine’ to make room for the pregnancy.
Once pregnant, Al goes through all the things involved in pregnancy, he gives up smoking his ‘gangster’ cigars, endures morning sickness, and goes for a scan: “nobody puts the grease on me Lady” he warns the nurse giving the scan. He is advised throughout his pregnancy, not by a recent mother, but by his henchman who reassures him that he has delivered three of his own. None of this stops him going about his hitman duties for Don Luigi. He practises changing diapers, feeding and bathing as a form of humiliation on one of his victims.

The birth itself couldn’t be more different from the naturalistic ‘nativity’ in Miracleman. In a modern operating theatre surrounded by a full medical team, he prepares for a caesarean section. Unfortunately the operation is interrupted by a deranged enemy who cries “Here comes your caesarean” as he hurls an axe and various surgical instruments at the prone figure of Al. In a whirlwind of sharp objects, blood and violence, the attacker is finally brought down by Velma, Al’s wife, and the caesarean proceeds as planned, culminating in the birth of their son. The issue ends with a charming family portrait of Al the Beast, Velma, and Don Luigi and his new grandson, festooned with the words “He’s one mean mother!”

Lalita Kaplish

Lalita Kaplish is Web Editor at the Wellcome Library. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter @LalitaKaplish.

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