Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Dumb by Georgia Webber

Sometimes you don't realize the confines of a genre until you read a book that busts them.

The modern comics memoir has been focused on the "this bad/interesting thing happened to me" for around a generation, from Maus through Satrapi and Bechdel to the flood of our current century. To get in the door, a creator has to be able to articulate one major thing that makes them different - in the most pure case, a bad thing that happened in their childhood. From there, the story can open out, but it's all seen through the lens of the One Thing, and probably (these days) with the goal of helping other people understand and deal with the One Thing. (The One Thing is less likely to be "my father survived the Holocaust" nowadays and more likely to be along the lines of "I was a colorblind twelve-year-old" or "I came to This Country as a refugee from war-torn Ruritania," so the lessons are simpler and more obvious.)

Georgia Webber has no lessons to impart. And she's not all that invested in making her story clean and pretty and linear for the reader, either. Oh, sure, her memoir is about the One Thing that happened to her - she injured her vocal chords, and had to basically stop speaking at all for several months - but it's not a thing that's going to happen to a lot of people, and she isn't here to tell you how to live your life anyway.

Instead, Dumb is purely her story, starting from the point where the pain started. We see a little of her busy, loud life ahead of time, as a twentysomething with a lot of social activity and a few different jobs, circles, and volunteer gigs in Montreal, but just enough to know that the vocal pain is affecting that life. We don't get a real baseline; we don't see what it was like for her when she was fully healthy.

Webber has a style that blends crisp mostly single-weight lines with a more impressionistic, fat-lined scribble. In Dumb she tends to use the crisp style to tell the story - showing herself, other people, and dialogue - while the impressionistic style layers over that in a medium red, sometimes overwhelming the everyday events, sometimes taking over from it, and sometimes just sitting on top of it. It's not quite a metaphor for her loss of voice - Webber doesn't seem to want the red to represent One Thing; I get the sense she's not big on One Thing thinking - but it's a visual way of showing what's going on in her head and life.

So Dumb is not as linear as you might expect. It does mostly run forward through time, starting out with the pain, leading to a diagnosis, and then the long central section as Webber struggles to live her life, or recreate her speaking life as a silent person, but the last quarter is more like a montage. Maybe she doesn't have a single moment for an ending, maybe this was still ongoing - lives are not stories, and they don't end neatly. Whatever the reason, Dumb does not tie everything up neatly in a bow and present the Secrets for Living With This One Thing.

It's more about how to get through, what it feels like, how people react and how to navigate a life that changes radically in an odd, unexpected and surprisingly difficult way. And that does feel different and radical in the context of the "this bad thing happened to me" comics memoir. Which is all good and necessary: genres need to be broken open regularly. I'm glad Webber was there to do it, and I hope she's doing other stories now and that her voice is back to "normal." (Dumb is from 2018, which, given the time comics take to create, means the events in it probably happened nearly a decade ago.)

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