How to Be Alive
Retrofit Comics/Big Planet Comics
How to Be Alive turns a collection of Tara Booth’s gouache vignettes into a complicated, intense look at Booth’s everyday life that swings from hilarious to saddening in the turn of a page. From dragging on the layers required to face a cold day to embracing the sweet relief of ditching the lacy piece of structural engineering known as a bra, Booth covers nearly every conceivable moment. Neither clinical nor reverent, the paintings are utterly human and tell a relatable tale with an admirable economy of text.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. By my count of a picture per page, that easily makes How to Be Alive novella-length at some 41,000 words and change. I find that particularly impressive, given how well-chosen those “and change” actual words are, even though I didn’t catch their appropriateness on the first read. Booth uses that text to excellent effect in concert with her vignettes.
Despite Booth’s mastery of the written word, the lack of dialogue and narration, paired with vivid and sometimes frenetic color choices, makes it easy to skim How to Be Alive. That was the mistake I made the first time I read it. I hadn’t given it the attention it required, so I had missed important tidbits: the labels on her medicine bottles, the days marked off on her calendars, the titles of her books and notebooks. This left me feeling disconnected from much of what Booth was attempting to convey.
When I went back and re-read, taking the time to expand pages on my phone screen, I came away not only enjoying the book much more but relating to so many of the moments captured in Booth’s vignettes. Sitting on the floor with tears streaming down my face while stuffing snacks into my piehole to “celebrate” my period? Been there. Cut my bangs a little unevenly, so let’s even them… oh, no, they’re uneven over here, so let’s… um, bald is in now, right? Me and every other attempted self-stylist.
Even the crude moments so often glossed over in conversation are there. They caught me by surprise at first; after all, we’re taught from a young age that what happens in the bathroom stays in the bathroom and possibly never happens at all to ladies (or they never, ever admit it). Potty humor is supposed to be the preserve of the rougher sex. Booth crashes directly through that particular taboo in scenes that I found unsettling and uncomfortable, even on subsequent read-throughs. But that’s how life is, isn’t it? Relatable and funny and messy and unsettling and uncomfortable and pleasant, sometimes all at the same time?
Booth’s paintings also left me with complicated reactions. She uses color liberally, sometimes violently, and not always in combinations pleasing to the eye, but somehow it all works. Some pages leave you feeling amused, others unsettled, just from the color palette. The fact Booth makes sure to space out the intense, full-page images with pages making judicious use of white space keeps everything from becoming overwhelming by providing readers’ cones and rods with a bit of breathing room before deluging them with more riotous imagery.
How to Be Alive might not go on my list of comic works to read again and again, but I understand how it earned its Ignatz nomination. Booth’s work explores what a successful comic can be and who can create one. A picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, a collection of them was worth the Outstanding Comic Ignatz.