Memoirists, unsurprisingly, often retell moments of their lives to extract a lesson from their experiences. It is natural to use the act of writing or talking about yourself to generate meaning, but lately I’ve been wondering if building narratives out of one’s own incomplete life can be dangerous. We all have, at one time or another, realized we had to wreck our self-image at least a bit in order to move forward.
As I’ve pondered this, I’ve also been reading a lot of comics by Jane Mai. Her comics have slowly crept into my life over the last few years, starting in 2015, when I discovered Sunday in the Park with Boys while working at a library branch with a more robust comics collection than my usual workplace. Of all the books I snapped up, Mai’s visceral depictions of depression stayed with me most. A year later, at the last Chicago Alternative Comics Festival (CAKE), I unknowingly picked up the zine that is the precursor to Mai’s soon-to-be-published collaboration with An Nguyen: So Pretty/Very Rotten: Comics and Essays on Lolita Fashion and Cute Culture. The zine lured me in with its title, don’t talk to me or I’ll set myself on fire, and won me over with its depictions of cute, luxuriously dressed girls wielding parasols and shards of glass like weapons. Months later, her collection of autobiographical sketch comics, See You Next Tuesday, leaped out at me from a shelf in a used bookstore, and I completed the process of falling in love.
Mai’s comics are filled with unanswered questions, some delightful, some dark, and some deeply affecting. In Sunday in the Park with Boys, Mai tells several stories about when she was 19 and worked at a mostly empty, low-traffic library. Anxiety and depression creep up on her in the form of centipedes, and while they are upsetting and disrupt Mai’s emotions and sense of identity, they sometimes feel like neutral companions, present, but not necessarily active. The lethargic atmosphere of the comic captures a sense of spiraling or drowning. However, while the comic’s ending feels positive, Mai offers no cathartic release. Mental illness is itself an unanswerable question, like a centipede that one carries and that sometimes grows, sometimes shrinks, but never leaves. The simple acceptance of that fact is satisfying.
The genius behind Mai’s lighter, more humorous comics often comes from her acknowledgment that feelings are confusing. In a comic recently posted to her Patreon–where you can read new autobio comics for a measly dollar a month–Mai recalls receiving a moldy potato in the mail. In about four pages, she explores her entire emotional arc as she fervently searches for the sender. Receiving a moldy potato may seem inconsequential, but it is potentially harassment. (A note: Don’t mail people awful things just to be mean! That’s unwanted and gross, and therefore is harassment!) However, the very idea of receiving a moldy potato is kind of funny. What even is the correct reaction? Do you laugh it off? Do you, like Mai, fall into paranoia and try to suss out the stalkerish fiend who mailed it?
I won’t spoil the mystery, because you can go give the artist a dang dollar and read it yourself, but Mai’s scratchy linework and perfect pacing carry the reader through uncharted emotional territory. Again, she offers no final reflection or conclusion about her journey, but the comic as a whole is an immensely enjoyable read. Perhaps the best lesson from it is that some experiences are scarring, and that is that.
Emotions aside, Mai is downright hilarious. See You Next Tuesday includes a lot of toilet humor; she tells a genuinely frightening story about a toilet overflowing late at night, calls people out for spending too long in the bathroom because they’re on Instagram, and laments having to wait for the library to open so she can poop. In a fantastic interview with Annie Mok for The Comics Journal that you should read, Mai explained that most of her comics are drawn on loose paper, and See You Next Tuesday is actually a collage of work sometimes drawn three years apart. The end result is a perfect storm of themes; comics about her depression, her tense relationship with her mother, and, of course, poop jokes all rub elbows to create a collection that maybe shouldn’t work, but that you don’t want to put down. Each transition from real talk to dick joke is a reminder that all the high and low pieces of our lives happen one after another, whether we want them to or not.
If you haven’t already stopped reading this to do so, run out to your nearest library or comic shop to check out her work. I also highly recommend looking through her online store, where you can find t-shirts and sweatshirts that feature the depression bugs. I love the idea of taking the worst pieces of ourselves, putting them to work, and turning them into rent, groceries, and coffee. It’s like the act of eating a placenta; Mai takes something that has drained her and makes it give something back.
Mai and An Nguyen’s upcoming book So Pretty/Very Rotten: Comics and Essays on Lolita Fashion and Cute Culture will be released through Koyama Press this spring, and a short preview is available on Mai’s website. Finally, of course, you can fund her Patreon and read all about Potatogate.