Review: Miseryland by Keiler Roberts

This weekend is the wild rumpus of comics arts festivals,
including the brand new New South Festival in Austin Texas and CAKE in Chicago.
If you have the weekend free and are nearby either, I’d suggest you check them
out. There are quite a few books debuting at these shows, and one debut at CAKE
is coming from show special guest Keiler Roberts, whose zine series Powdered
Milk is being collected into a softcover book titled Miseryland.

Miseryland is 144
pages of black and white comics in a perfect bound collection and contains
Powdered Milk issues #9-15 as well as new content. This run includes the comics nominated for 2014 Ignatz
Best Story and Best Series, as well as the special issue Roberts created to
explain why she wasn’t attending SPX despite the nomination.

Roberts’ comics primarily explore her relationship with her
daughter Xia and husband Scott, as well as her interactions with friends and
extended family. These are classic slice-of-life comics, and Roberts uses
sometimes panels, sometimes full pages to capture the essence of certain
moments. Xia is growing up and learning about the world around her, and the strange
internal logic of toddlers gives Miseryland
much of its charm. Slice-of-life comics can often be cute or endearing, but Miseryland is funny, laugh out loud
funny, mostly due to the inanities and bad behaviors of its youngest cast
member and Roberts’ deadpan reactions.

Importantly, Roberts isn’t writing a “kids say the darndest
things” comic; as panels and pages fall into place throughout Miseryland, these small stories paint a
picture of Roberts as a melancholy, anxious mother living with bipolar
disorder and trying to find the best way to raise her daughter. Xia is oftentimes the
access point to these feelings, pointing out the hidden in ways that make it
seem obvious.  

Miseryland isn’t a
tell all, either – even when things like Roberts miscarriage come up, the
stories told are more a remembering than an exposure.  We find Roberts at high and low points
throughout the book, and while these moments coalesce into a larger vision,
Miseryland has time to explore the
way creative processes and personal time are changed after you have children.
Some of these comics are certainly a part of the book because Xia wasn’t napping
when Roberts was drawing, just as some are there to illustrate Roberts fears
and frustrations.

The subtlety of these stories and feelings is echoed in Roberts’
drawing, which is simple and subdued. The comics themselves are often nonlinear,
even when Roberts is using the 6 panel grid, and it is one of the unique
features of the comics collected in Miseryland.
From a reader’s point of view, this can be challenging at first, but I like the
idea of non-linearity as both a reflection on the nature of memory and of
family storytelling.

As a collection, Miseryland
offers up a more holistic view into the world and life of Roberts and her
family than likely any single issue of Powdered Milk could provide. The result is a story of a complex woman and her family trying to make it through life in mostly one piece, grilled cheese and all. Recommended.

—-

A review copy of
Miseryland was provided by the author.

Keiler Roberts keilerroberts is a teacher, illustrator, and cartoonist
based in Chicago. You can find more of her work at her website.

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