I’m not a mother, but I might have been. When I was nineteen I had an abortion. It wasn’t the right time, I was depressed, and the pregnancy was working hard to hasten the end of a bad relationship. I don’t need to give you excuses or reasons, but we do it anyway, don’t we? Shaking off the impulse to assure others that we’re good girls, of sound mind and reason, of stout heart and spirit — that’s quite a trick.
Rachel Masilamani’s eight page comic, “Plan B-200,” the first chapter in a comic series, is about pregnancy: when it’s considered a miracle, and when it’s instead a tragedy.
Teen Mom: A young life, cut off so soon.
Barren: An old life, unfulfilled.
The comic is a fictionalized high school memoir, a look back on the occasion of the cartoonist’s trying to conceive as an adult. In high school there are few things worse than an unplanned pregnancy derailing an otherwise promising young life — the mere suspicion of an embryo is an atom bomb, exploding shame and misfortune on everyone around it. But aren’t all lives promising? Masilamani asks this in a roundabout manner, recalling a fellow student who became pregnant and then disappeared from her classes. She sees her one day, close to graduation, in a stifling, basement classroom reserved for reforming those already written off. Rachel is just visiting, but those other kids? They’re there to stay.
“I didn’t know this was down here.”
“All of us get a shift in B-200.”
That’s some privilege — never wondering where those kids were disappearing to; engaging with those problem children in carefully scheduled shifts.
I like the look of this page, and of Masilamani’s depiction of room B-200. It’s not overloaded with forbidding imagery. The page before this has Rachel’s hand knocking on the door, her face and torso excluded. The door is a muddy grey with a wire mesh over the window. The door rattles when she knocks. This is horror enough. No, the story of B-200 is all in the body language, not in the room itself, which could be any school basement. In B-200 kids hunch over their desks, into their hoodies, into themselves, forbidding your gaze. They fight openly, physically, right in front of a teacher. This is a bad place, one where Rachel, with her cute platform sandals and bright future doesn’t belong. She knows this, shrinking away from them as they shrink away from her. Some turn hostile gazes on her — she’s from upstairs. She thinks she’s something, doesn’t she? The teacher just smiles.
This page says so much. But what I appreciate most is that the centre portion, where your gaze might rest longest, is given over to a series of portraits: the kids of B-200 in sharp focus. Shrink, grin, look away, but “the boys who went crazy and the girls who got pregnant” are right here, real people, set against a crisp white background, panels and postures varied so your eye doesn’t become complacent. Here they are, reader. Being human.
When Rachel emerges from B-200 and recounts her adventure to her friends, they’re astonished. “There’s a floor BELOW the basement?” But they move on quickly. Gym teachers, cute boys, gossip, and life don’t wait, you know. Rachel though, doesn’t forget as quickly, and soon comes to realize that one of those B-200 kids is a girl she used to know.
It’s all in the pacing, this page, with both teen and adult Rachel audible: she had beautiful hair… but she went and cut it off, did Jenny, who glows in those last two panels. They’re mirrored two pages later, when Rachel encounters a much older Jenny with her daughter, as an infant, as a child, and lastly, as a teenager.
The page is voyeuristic but lovely; powerful. Rachel continually looks on while Jenny’s daughter grows older, and along with age, there is a motif of moving away. Jenny is always walking, driving, and catching transit away from Rachel. Jenny is something of a mysterious figure for Rachel, and the reason is motherhood — perhaps too soon, but perhaps, just at the right time. How can Rachel know? Jenny knows things she doesn’t.
The pages I’ve shared with you so far are mostly warm, yellows, oranges, and lots of white space. These represent Rachel’s memories of people. Not just Jenny, but also her friends and other classmates are done up in these inviting colours. The blue of that second last panel above, that’s the colour scheme associated with something, unsurprisingly, colder. It’s the colour Rachel’s anxieties about pregnancy come in. When she’s a teen, worrying about how getting pregnant might destroy her life, or an older woman worrying about how not getting pregnant might ruin her life.
It’s not a subtle technique, but neither is it bombastic. Medical jargon, teenage rumour-mongering, and these blues, cut with green, aren’t overwhelming. Instead they wash over you (well, me) in aid of recognition. And like the sequence of memories of Jenny and her daughter, Rachel and her relationship to fertility — dangerous, mysterious, always stressful — is tidily mirrored throughout the comic. The point, of course, is one question that is unavoidable in B-200, but finally and decisively underlined with its last panel: why do we shame teens for getting pregnant unmarried and too young? Why do we shame married women for getting pregnant too late?
I’m constantly reminded that my biological clock is ticking. Not by the clock itself, but by people around me. “Do you want kids,” they ask. “Not… really,” I usually say. “Well, you’d better decide soon. Tick. Tick. Tick.
Masilamani comments on her comic in this footnote, which I really appreciate:
“As I get older, my understanding of what constitutes success and prudence has become more flexible and less dependent on prevailing wisdom. Still, because I am not a mother, at every stage of life, I remain dependent on outside advice from the world around me—my friends, my magazines, my healthcare providers and the internet—for knowledge about pregnancy. “Plan B-200″ is not strictly autobiographical, though it is rooted in real life.”
Like I said above, “Plan B-200” is just the first part of a series called NON PARTUM, published by Mutha Magazine. I’ll be looking at those other parts too, in the coming weeks. Please join me.