Page 45 Review by Jonathan
The most profoundly moving graphic novel I personally have ever read bar none. Tears were rolling down my face continuously whilst I read it (yes, on the bloody tram again!), and for a good twenty minutes afterwards. Upon finishing it I was actually shaking and felt physically sick. Indeed, even as I start to type this review I can feel the tears welling up once more.
An autobiographical story about the death of a young child is clearly difficult subject matter to tackle, and I don't doubt a considerable part of my immediate personal reaction to it, is due to recently becoming a Dad to the beautiful Isabella, who seemingly every day manages to steal another little piece of my heart that I didn't even know existed prior to that moment.
I therefore admire Nicola Streeten massively just simply for having the courage to create this work, which describes the heartbreaking death of her first child Billy aged two during heart surgery, a mere ten days after his condition was diagnosed. I admire her even more for creating a work which is not simply an outpouring of her grief, but instead an acutely insightful look into the nature of such a loss, and an equally insightful portrayal of the reactions of the world around her to it.
Firstly, I simply can't imagine what it must be like to experience the loss that Nicola did. Even now, just thinking about such a thing happening to my daughter is causing my hands to shake as I type and my eyes to prickle again. Her clarity in explaining the sequence of events and her initial emotional turmoil is just astonishing and so very touching. From there we then move onto her and her partner John's attempts to come to terms with what has happened, and just exactly how their lives have been so completely shattered in such a devastatingly short space of time. The black and white photograph of some of Billy's toys, left where he last played with them, taken by John and included here, is unbelievably powerful in this context.
I do suspect anyone who has been through the loss of a loved one, even an older person as my wife has relatively recently with the loss of her much beloved father from cancer, will identify completely with the extreme range of emotional experiences Nicola and John endured. But there is actually also a considerable amount of humour in this section of the work, as we are frequently treated to her thoughts in response to the comments of others, which range from the truly caring to the completely unhelpful, and indeed the occasionally utterly bizarre and inane. Their comments - not her thoughts, I probably should just clarify! It's an odd thing to find yourself chuckling whilst crying, but I did so on several occasions as Nicola's thought bubbles uncannily reproduced my wife's own thoughts in several similar social encounters with, on the face of it, entirely well meaning individuals who seemingly just managed to continually make matters worse with their attempts at consoling her.
When I read Phoebe Potts' graphic memoir about infertility GOOD EGGS, I found myself struggling to have compassion for her, despite my wife and I going through a similar ordeal ourselves, albeit with a happier outcome as we were eventually blessed with Isabella, simply because I (and also my wife) couldn't warm to Phoebe remotely as she portrayed herself in that work. Here though, much like Rosalind Penfold's DRAGONSLIPPERS, which tells the autobiographical story of an abusive relationship, I found myself in complete empathy with Nicola, simply because of the matter of fact portrayal of her story, which has the important quality of feeling like it has been written with a desire to help others who might be experiencing such a horror, as opposed to GOOD EGGS, which feels to me more like Phoebe Potts just wanted to write a comic all about herself and was using her infertility as subject matter to that end. Probably a harsh statement, but in writing an autobiographical work, it's as important to be clear about why you're writing it, as in the presentation of the material, in my opinion. At no point in BILLY, ME & YOU did I ever feel that Nicola was attempting to elicit sympathy from the reader. Rather I felt, much like Rosalind achieves with DRAGONSLIPPERS, that there is a genuine sense of the author wanting to reach out to others similarly afflicted and say "You are not alone. Nothing I say can actually make things better for you personally, but I do understand what you are going through."
I don't doubt that writing this work some thirteen years on (plus also having been fortunate enough to have another child, and her depiction of the inevitable emotional turmoil the arrival of her daughter Sally engendered in her and John is again in equal parts illuminating and moving) has been a cathartic experience. It's just I genuinely think achieving such a catharsis wasn't her primary motivation in doing so. Nor I'm sure was writing a comic about herself.
This caring approach is not the only thing Nicola shares with Rosalind's DRAGONSLIPPERS, as she also chooses to employ a relatively simplistic, dare I say it, primitive art style here. Now I have no idea whether Nicola is actually as accomplished an artist as Rosalind is, I'm sure she probably is, but I think her choice of art style for this work is inspired, as the illustrations have a childlike feel to them which really helps ground the work and lets the emotional content roar off the pages, and I do also think when you are dealing with such serious subject matter as this, that picking a less 'serious' art style really does help.
This is a work you should read. It's not an easy read, but you should read it nonetheless. This is probably one of the very few works out there, like Brick's painfully honest account of his struggles with depression in DEPRESSO, that not only has the power to heal, but also the power to inform people how best to practically help and support someone suffering such from overwhelming emotional trauma.