Cream Maid is the story of a loving couple, Honey and Darling, and their adventures raising a cat known as Cream Maid. Each chapter (thus far) plays out in a formulaic manner — Cream Maid gets in trouble and is lectured, Cream Maid gets upset, and then there’s a touching resolution between the cat and their parents. Yet each has been nonetheless endearing to follow along. While Chapter 1, Trying to Get Home, sets up the main characters of the comic (Honey, Darling, Cream Maid), it is in Chapter 2, The World Inside, that writer Dickson delves more into each character, with a particular focus on Honey and her struggle with anxiety.
Mark Dickson (writer), Rebecca Burgess (artist), Bryce Beal and Scott Malin (editors), Rhianna Mills (logo design), Leanna Cruz (graphic design)
Arledge Comics, 2021
The World Inside opens with Honey welcoming an audience and being immediately and loudly ridiculed by cries such as, “What do you think you’re doing?” and “She can’t even talk properly,” causing her to fall through cracks in the stage, which jolts her awake from what is revealed to be a dream. Though it is left unnamed in the story, adding a level of ambiguity, it is clear Honey just had an anxiety attack in her dream.
Rebecca Burgess’ art takes clear inspiration from Margret and H.A. Rey’s Curious George series, with certain characters having dotted eyes. Honey’s more detailed eyes work as a shorthand for her emotions. During Honey’s anxiety attacks, Burgess’ art style correspondingly becomes distorted, as a means of asserting first-hand how terrifying experiencing an anxiety attack can be.
Cream Maid, the titular cat, does not speak for the entirety of the comic and this lack of verbalizing is the cause of conflict where Cream Maid is concerned. The story respectfully does not place the fault on Cream Maid when trouble arises, or at least not fully. Rather some of the blame is also on the adults around them, as they do not appear to attempt to understand the cat. Cream Maid’s character arc, as such, is learning to communicate in a bad situation so it can be resolved quickly.
At no point in Chapters 2 through 4 do any of the characters fault Honey for her anxiety attacks, most importantly Honey herself. What is done is factoring them in as a part of the story, adding some emotional tension and some slight nightmarish imagery. One such moment comes when Honey volunteers at an animal shelter. As she enters, the smiling man at the counter resembles someone who would not look out of place in a horror movie, with somewhat distorted features and teeth that take up a quarter of his face. Burgess creates a very sharp contrast by showing the reality of the guy immediately after, who looks as plain and friendly as the other characters in the comic.
Soon afterward, Honey tells Darling about a part of her childhood: a recurring nightmare in which Honey felt the room was closing around her, saying, “it would always catch me. It would always crush me,” despite her attempts to escape the slowly contracting room and its people laughing at her. Upon hearing this, Darling hugs Honey, giving her a moment of reassurance and delivering one of the best lines in the comic so far: “We don’t get just one try at this.” Rather than detracting, the moment is enhanced by the humor of Darling making a bad batch of cookies: “Honey, did it taste like this when YOU ate it?”
The deftness and kindness with which Mark Dickson and Burgess handle anxiety in this comic is certain to make it a must read for those who suffer similarly. Especially beneficial is that nothing feels heavy-handed nor condescending to the reader. Rather, the writing and illustrations work in tandem to clue the reader just enough for them to draw their conclusions.