News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Book Review - Menopause: A Comic Treatment

All images courtesy of Penn State University Press
reviewed by Janis Be Breckenridge, Whitman College

Czerwiec, MK, ed. Menopause: A Comic Treatment, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020, 135 pages, $29.95, ISBN: 978-0271087122.

 Shattering the silence and secrecy surrounding the ‘big change,’ Menopause: A Comic Treatment offers an unflinching look at an often stigmatized or taboo topic. For those unsure of the precise nature of the biological process, the National Library of Medicine defines menopause as “the time in a woman's life when her period stops. It usually occurs naturally, most often after age 45. Menopause happens because the woman's ovaries stop producing the hormones estrogen and progesterone.”

 This collaborative volume collects twenty-five highly distinct graphic works that vary in length from single-page comics to a sixteen-page illustrated narrative. Showcasing an array of personal experiences, the intimate stories convey multiple aspects of this biological event, from physical to psychological, hormonal to spiritual. While one author-protagonist somewhat anxiously anticipates perimenopause, the majority narrate the process as it unfolds or reflect upon it in hindsight. Most undergo menopause naturally, seemingly as a rite of passage, while others detail early onset, chemical, or surgical menopause. In parallel fashion, these testimonials run the gamut of emotional responses from confusion and frustration to curiosity and fascination. Even as some contributions narrate overcoming shame and ignorance, others insist upon jubilant celebration or assume a defiantly irreverent attitude. A particularly laudable characteristic of the anthology is the diversity of the contributors—across the spectrum of age, ethnicity, profession, sexual and gender identification, even expertise with comics creation itself—that have come together to share their wide-ranging perspectives. In short, Menopause: A Comic Treatment effectively illustrates how the complexities of menopause are anything but a singular experience.

 In a brief introductory essay, editor MK Czerwiec (known online as Comic Nurse) relates her own unpreparedness for the destabilizing effects of perimenopause and how failure to find adequate representation in popular culture led to the creation of this volume. Discovering a paucity of comics on the topic, and worse, that the few in existence were denigrating and judgmental, Czerwiec was determined to produce a work with a positive ethos aiming to help women understand their bodies, navigate the unknown, and foster a community of support. In her words, “A new collection of comics was needed—one that shared stories that might actually be helpful, stories that encourage those of us facing the symptoms of perimenopause to find our voices rather than remain silent, to invite us into strength rather than push us further into shame” (2). The result is the most recent of nineteen titles in Pennsylvania State’s pioneering Graphic Medicine book series which, as stated on their website, affirms “a growing awareness of the value of comics as an important resource for communicating about a range of issues broadly termed “medical.” 

 True to the spirit of the graphic medicine series, Menopause: A Comic Treatment effectively informs the reader by depicting real-world, lived experiences rather than touting medical jargon. Two contributions—not coincidentally those of medical practitioners themselves—directly incorporate the voices of healthcare and academic professionals, only to immediately turn away from specialized terminology and instead offer personalized responses as laypeople. Monica Lalanda’s comic, “When My Biological Clock Stopped Ticking,” opens with her discussing menopause “as a doctor” but the impenetrable language quickly degenerates into “blah blah blah” (26); her response “as a woman” immediately follows and provides the more relatable perspective maintained in the rest of the cartoon. 

Excerpt from “When My Biological Clock Stopped Ticking” by Monica Lalanda


 Similarly, Czerwiec’s “Burning Up” includes a full-page panel in which a professor of neurobiology lectures about the neurobiological functioning of the hypothalamus; the rest of the comic presents her personal and far more-accessible theory that the purpose of hot flashes is, and I cite her technical explanation verbatim here, “give-a-shits burning off” (34). Throughout the anthology, contributors share private thoughts, personal coping strategies, and individual ways of coming to terms with myriad symptoms including hot flashes, cold sweats, six-month-long periods, vaginal dryness, thinning hair and dry skin, vaginal atrophy, lack of sleep, etc. An absolute rejection of menopause as a pathology, however, becomes a common denominator across their stories. 

Excerpt from “Burning Up” by MK Czerwiec


 In representing the myriad ways that contributors maintain their “own styles for living through the challenges of perimenopause” (3), the volume showcases correspondingly divergent narrative and visual styles. Comics by newer and first-time artists are accompanied by those of veteran cartoonists whose work will be immediately recognizable to comics enthusiasts. Lynda Barry’s “Menopositive!” maintains the characteristic attributes of her unique genre of autobifictionalography by humorously revisiting traumatizing uncertainties of girlhood, cultural anxieties, and triumphant moments of self-discovery. 

Excerpt from “Menopositive!” by Lynda Barry


 Roberta Gregory’s contentious signature character, the angry and often crass Bitchy Bitch, makes an appearance (a reprint from her last Naughty Bits storyline, issue #40, 2004). Her bitter rant about first menses and the inconveniences of menstruation ends with manic glee at the prospect of burning feminine her hygiene products and never suffering with cramps or PMS again. And true to her own underground comix roots and work with Tits and Clits, Joyce Farmer offers a funny, potentially scandalous, sex-positive comic affirming not only that menopausal women get horny, they also know how to take care of themselves.

 An examination of the cover art reveals how the design anticipates the volume’s intimate content, complex intricacies, and often surprising juxtapositions. A blood-red overlay on a dramatically enlarged comic, together with the large white and yellow lettering that boldly announces the volume’s title—which seems to scream and leap off the page—confers a sense of urgency, if not a somewhat harsh, almost garish, quality. The strategically cropped reproduction of Teva Harrison’s “The Big Change” depicts a stand-up comedy routine in which the speaker verbally calls out and simultaneously acts out (bodily and through exaggerated facial expressions) myriad symptoms linked to this time in her life when “estrogen has left the building.” With an effective combination of sparse text and cartoonish close ups, each panel lingers on a single, specific indicator of perimenopause. Not coincidentally, hot flashes take center stage. In this way, the comedienne dramatically illustrates, with grace and humor, that menopause is no laughing matter. But the punchline, revealed only here within the comic, truly delivers a one-two punch: the speaker suffers sudden and acute symptoms as a result of surgical menopause, but finds vengeful solace in knowing that her suffering causes her cancer to suffer. The contributor biography at the book’s conclusion informs the reader that the original comic appeared in Harrison’s In -Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer and, tragically, that the author later died of breast cancer. This poignant work, which weaves the volume together from start to finish, aptly conveys the anthology’s overall tone and structure. The comic exemplifies the creative blending of the personal and the clinical even as it graphically illustrates how serious complications can be treated with ludic undertones.

 Further highlighting the bewildering effects of menopause, graphic memoirist Mimi Pond uses techniques of exaggeration, distortion, and excess in “Women’s Carnival.” A middle-aged woman and her mother stumble upon a women-only funfair complete with a tunnel of love (whose red waters dry up before the ride is over), fun house mirrors (where the rapidly aging mother eventually becomes invisible), a mood swing (in which she insists that she never loved or perhaps feverishly loved her husband), and a hormone scrambler (a metaphor? ask the characters with ironic self-awareness). 

Excerpts from “Women’s Carnival” by Mimi Pond

 Pond’s bizarre carnival culminates with a freakshow that delivers scathing social critique. To the protagonists’ incredulity, rare women, true oddities—such as one who asked for and received a raise, another who can still wear her high school clothes, and another who confronted a coworker and received an apology—are put on display. The climactic highlight features a naked chorus of the world’s angriest women who take the stage to rage at having been discredited, objectified, and dismissed. The mother, visibly transformed after experiencing one wild ride after another, ultimately opts for the freedom and liberation of running away with this circus. These escapades, rendered in bright, flashy colors, demonstrate the absurdity and unpredictability of women’s biological cycles together with their unequal social status.

 Likewise exploring how women perceive themselves and are perceived by society, but now through the lens of gender and sexuality, two comics signal the need for greater inclusivity in discussions around menopause. For Ajuan Mance, uncertainties about when perimenopause will begin and what it will be like raise a unique set of questions as a gender non-conformist. In “Any Day Now” the genderqueer academic, self-described as a “woman-identified-gentleman-scholar” (66), points out that womanhood has been defined by doctors and poets primarily in relation to motherhood, fertility, and femininity. Reflecting on the shared (and unshared) professional and personal milestones experienced by members of a female cohort brings recognition of personally deriving identity more from intellectual adeptness and physical strength than reproductive functioning. With this insight, worries about being able to continue wearing favorite sweaters and ties during heat flashes shift to concerns about potential memory and dexterity losses more commonly associated with aging. The experimental comic, in which each page becomes a technical exercise in the shifting use of color to indicate changes in tone, time, and emotional states, foregrounds the reality that conversations around menopause presume a CIS gender identity.

Excerpt from “Any Day Now” by Ajuan Mance


 In a similar vein, trans author KC Councilor’s “Cycles” opens with a question that leaves him disconcerted: what is it like to go from a body that cycles to one that doesn’t? The comic then explores, in retrospect, the situation of being trapped in a female body, feeling aversion and loathing towards its regular cycles. A flashback reveals how this disconnect was externalized when her parents openly celebrated her first menses, an event that she experienced as a “bloody painful horror” (75). A more humorous disjuncture takes place during hormonal transitioning when, experiencing a period while using the men’s restroom, he nearly pelts another man as he tosses a bloody tampon into the trash. The final panel poses a disarming inversion to the comic’s opening as he poses a comparably jarring question, one that will likely give the reader pause: “What does it feel like to relate to the body you’re in?” (77). 

Excerpt from “Cycles” by KC Councilor.


 The publication of Menopause: A Comic Treatment is particularly timely if the Washington Post’s Wellness section is any indication. Several recent articles address the topic, citing the importance of normalizing conversations around menopause in order to ensure that women get the care, guidance, and support they need to safely manage disruptive symptoms. “Why Everyone Needs to Know More about Menopause - Especially Now” (June 29, 2020) laments women’s lack of knowledge and discusses the positive, stress-reducing impact open discussions around perimenopause can have, pointing to how this is especially critical during the pandemic when anxiety and depression are on the rise. “Experts are Cheering Michelle Obama’s Openness about Hot Flashes. And They Have Some Advice” (August 20, 2020) again underscores the value of open discussions and praises the former First Lady for being forthright about her own experiences, while “Another Routine the Pandemic has Disrupted: Your Period” (August 24, 2020) offers anecdotal evidence of increased irregularity in women’s cycles due to the stresses of the pandemic.

 Indeed, centered on the intersection of women’s bodies and real-life experiences, Menopause: A Comic Treatment heeds this urgent call for candid and frank discussion, sharing information and resources, and forming supportive networks. As this review has hopefully made clear, each comic offers a unique and particular response to perimenopause. Yet through these intimately personal if not openly confessional tales, several overlapping themes emerge. These include flashbacks to the uncertainties and fears that surrounded first menses, encountering the invisibility that awaits the aging female in society, coming to terms with myriad symptoms, and ultimately discovering a newfound sense of liberation and freedom. Contributors give voice to uncertainties and fears, but often feature protagonists who overcome shame or ignorance to ultimately find satisfaction, gaining both empowerment and independence. In short, these women come to accept if not embrace this transitional period (no pun intended). MK Czerwiec’s groundbreaking anthology successfully achieves her important goals of breaking silences, exposing secrets, and drawing together individuals to create a community of knowledge. The many laughs along the way are an added bonus. 

Janis Be, Professor of Hispanic Studies, specializes in socially committed narrative and visual cultural production. Her scholarship on Spanish-language comics, which has appeared in IJOCA, ImageText, Ciberletras, Chasqui, Confluencia and Ergocomics, covers such diverse topics as Argentine feminism, the Spanish Civil War, childhood recollections of Pinochet’s Chile, Alzheimer’s, addiction, and traumatic memory. Versions of this review will appear online and in print in IJOCA 22:2.

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