Friday, January 13, 2023

Who Will Make the Pancakes by Megan Kelso

Comics take a long time to make - especially if the creator has other things to do with her life. (Like: making money, living, family...all of those usual things.) So there are wonderful creators a reader could almost forget about, just because it's so long between new books.

Megan Kelso is a wonderful creator, a thoughtful writer and detailed artist of stories that are realistic, more or less, and always about people rather than abstractions or genre furniture. I think she's had only one full-length graphic novel, the interesting allegory The Artichoke Mother, but her shorter pieces have been collected in Queen of the Black Black and The Squirrel Mother.

And, not to bury the lede, but she just had a new book published: Who Will Make the Pancakes: Five Stories, which has two hundred big pages of Megan Kelso comics, comprised of, as it says, five fairly-long stories.

My sense is that Kelso's stories all grow out of her life, but aren't necessarily about her. They might be - that's always a possibility - but the reader can't assume.

Actually, that's a good rule for any creator: the reader can't assume. 

These five stories are mostly about women - "Cats in Service" is more complicated, closer to the allegory of Artichoke, and "The Golden Lasso," I'd say, is more specifically about girls [1] - ranging in time and space from WWII-era to the modern day. Since there's only five of them, I feel compelled to write a bit about each one, but they're all good, all strong stories. You could stop reading now and just go get the book; I wouldn't be offended.

Kelso's most famous story leads off here: "Watergate Sue," part of The New York Times Magazine's experiment with comics storytelling in the late Aughts. (They stopped after eight storylines, by eight great creators. No idea why; there were plenty more people who would have been happy to do it.) What I like about this story is how it's not exactly about Sue - who is thirty-two and pregnant in the modern side of the story - and not exactly about her mother Eve - who was probably just slightly younger and became pregnant in the historical side, set in 1973-74 - but about both of them, the way they compare and contrast. Kelso shows intensely here: none of these people will explain what they care about or want, for all that they talk incessantly throughout the story. And the Watergate hearings and Nixon's eventual downfall is not just background, it's important...but, again, Kelso won't tell you what to think about that, or how it connects to her characters.

"Cats in Service" is, in its odd way, the most obvious story in the book - or maybe I mean straightforward. It's a dream- or fable-like story about a family that trained cats to be domestic servants - yes, upright in livery, Downton Abbey-style - and how that all worked out. I don't know if Kelso meant it as an allegory or metaphor - for domestication of animals or for dehumanization of servants, or something more complex - but it can be read a few different ways, and leaves a reader unsure but wondering.

"The Egg Room" has the most interesting central character in Florence. Kelso's main characters often run to a type, in visuals and personality: thoughtful, contained, smallish women deeply connected to others. Flo is louder, larger, pushier than that, and she looks different from the average Kelso protagonist, clearly older and maybe even from a different ethnicity. Her story is about...well, a lot of things. One of the strands that spoke to me the most - I'm not claiming this is central, or even important - is how she wanted to make great art, wanted to be creative and productive, but that didn't happen for her. She's not the only person in the story, either, but I like to think of it as her story. The title here is another metaphor or allegory, which I won't try to explain or spoil.

"Korin Voss" is a historical story: the title character is a single mother right after WWII, with two daughters who don't understand or appreciate her children never do of their parents. She's one of those people who has unspoken rules about how she lives and what she should do, but doesn't always live up to the best interpretation of her own rules and has trouble bending her rules to help herself and her family. This one is pretty closely centered on her: it does jump around a bit in time, but not too much - it's all this era, all this part of her life, all about the changes she needs to make as the world changes around her.

And last is "The Golden Lasso," which I suspect may be the closest to autobiographical. It's about a girl named Diana in about 1980-81, when she's twelve and thirteen. She wants to be good at rock-climbing, maybe because it's something physical she can do well, maybe because an attractive slightly older boy is a guide, maybe because of a male adult leader. Maybe a lot of maybes: it's something she grabs onto as a way to stand out, to work hard, to excel. All of that is great, no matter why she found it. Later, as the story goes on, there's some modern commentary, of Diana talking to other girls she knew then, many years later, about the things they didn't talk about then. And she does have a golden lasso, like that more famous Diana, in some scenes, which forces the truth, mostly from birds and other creatures. It's not real. Or it is as real as it needs to be. It's real for the story; it's real for Diana, when she needed it.

All of Kelso's art is supple and smooth; her lines usually thin around rounded figures, somewhat towards the minimalist or ligne claire without heading all the way in that direction. Three of the stories are colored - all in somewhat different styles and ways, I think - while "Cats" and "Korin" are black and white. I tend to see some Carol Lay in Kelso's people: the roundness, the open faces, the gestures.

These are five excellent, meaty stories, ones that will live in your head afterward and make you think. You should read them.

[1] There's a long history of men writers using "girls" to mean adult women, at least subconsciously infantilizing. I try to be aware of that, and never to do it. So here I do mean girls, not "girls."

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