What Looks Like Strength: A review of Yahrzeit, by Leela Corman


Leela Corman

In 1939 Leela Corman’s grandfather was caught up in the events of of the second world war. It isn’t so much the war that haunts her, but her grandfather.

Corman is walking home one day when an ordinary neighbourhood turns into something fantastical. Trees bend, roots and branches reach out for her, drawing her into the portal that’s formed between them. Through that portal, “in that life, my first child is still alive.” She doesn’t step into the portal. Instead she thinks about her grandfather. That’s just the first page of this five page comic. Corman accomplishes all of this—setting the scene, commenting on the boundaries between the external world and the imaginary, dropping a gut wrenching bombshell—in one page. This is efficient, evocative cartooning.

yahrzeit page onePage two is dedicated to her grandfather. It’s dominated by the trunk and roots of a dark tree and the image of her grandfather carrying a rifle. The roots mark off asymmetrical, odd-sized panels that explore the possibilities of a family story—which is the truth? It doesn’t matter, really; both are awful. I find the weight of the page interesting. The tree towers over everything, but the image of Corman’s grandfather and his brother hiding in a literal hole in the ground under the tree is powerful too. Those “nineteen others,” who hid in that hole with them, are just eyes peeking out from behind branches. This is emblematic of Corman’s cartooning throughout. She uses the page to its utmost, parcelling it out in unusual ways. I like the abundance of thick black ink and imperfect lines. (Dry brush making an appearance here?) I like the simplicity of her figures—it lets their gestures speak for themselves. Of everything in this comic, the leaves are rendered with the most tidiness.

Corman literalizes carrying one’s dead—her grandfather is a body, lacking distinguishing characteristics, who sits on her shoulders. She draws strength from his memory, but is weighed down by it too—just as she is by the memory of her daughter. She asks, “did he sometimes get sick of talking to people who’ve never held the corpse of a loved one in their arms?” Neither she nor her grandfather could move on. They are haunted by possibility and loss. Corman emphasizes this through repeated images of holes, boltholes, bodies making and finding space where they should not be able too, limbs twining together, inextricable. There is no moving on, she says, just moving forward. “We are just animals lying low. Animals are wired to survive. That is what looks like strength.”

I don’t carry my dead. Mine is a family constantly dispersing, and my dead are all a generation or a continent removed. For my brother and me, it isn’t bodies, but a collage of faces, some of whom we never saw in person—our own lost generation. That kind of loss is haunting in its own way, though it’s nowhere near as visceral. But for all that I’ve never had someone close to me pass on, I do get what she means—it’s an animal thing, a human thing, to keep on going despite your scars. And Corman cuts down to the bone: her imagery and language is so clear (not Hemmingway simple, but clear) that empathy is impossible. You may not have felt what she feels, but you will feel with her, when reading.

Corman plays with the idea of strength. Is stoicism just the appearance of strength? What strength looks like? / What looks like strength? The question is carefully formulated. She may not always feel strong, carrying her dead and still going on, but it’s undeniable—present in her and her grandfather’s soldiering on; in those unbroken bodies; in those thick, black, imperfect lines and the comic’s existence. It’s not superheroism we’re dealing with her, but ordinary human strength. It’s not sexy but making art about depression, trauma, and loss is a wonderful, heroic act.

The comic ends with Corman and her grandfather curled up in the fetal position, in the lap of one of those ghost bodies, deep in those black woods. Is this comfort? Is this retreat? It’s ambiguous: the kind of ambiguity that comics does so well. It’s not that Corman failed to make herself clear, but that I can dwell for a moment in her ambiguities. The combination of pictures + words, without a camera to please, or laws of the physical world to obey, allows a particular, immersive intimacy. There’s something about tragic memoirs in comics form—the cartoonist represents and is represented without mediation from collaborators. And this comic, so personal, with so much of Corman on the page, is heartbreaking and heartening.

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.