Edited by MK Czerwiec, a comics creator and educator, and with contributions from educators, healthcare workers, researchers, and artists, including the likes of Lynda Barry, Ellen Forney, Joyce Farmer, Carol Tyler, and Mimi Pond, Menopause: A Comic Treatment is a poignant and much-needed anthology on a subject that is still largely stigmatized and absent from popular culture. In the introduction, Czerwiec, also a former nurse, writes that when she turned to comics to process symptoms of perimenopause, she could not find many. The ones she did find were hurtful and caricatural. She writes:
Most of them were either single-panel jokes about hot flashes or expressions of this or that symptom of perimenopause as an inconvenience to a husband or a male partner. Instead of feeling seen and empowered, I felt further isolated and belittled.
Menopause: A Comic Treatment
Edited by MK Czerwiec
Penn State University Press
August 17, 2020
The anthology was born out of this absurd gap in representation, out of the need for relatable stories that would invite those in the same boat “into strength rather than push [them] into further shame” (2). Published by Penn State University Press, Menopause joins the ranks of the increasing number of titles that falls within the scope of Graphic Medicine, a field of study that lies at the intersection of “the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare.” It includes twenty-five diverse voices that center lived experiences to accommodate a range of perspectives, including that of early menopause, of medically required menopause to mitigate estrogen-positive breast cancer, and of anticipating menopause while being gender non-conformist. The book’s cover features an expressive excerpt from the late Teva Harrison’s graphic memoir In-Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer. The black linework masked in blue and set against a deeply saturated rose red background makes for a striking cover design.
Maureen Burdock’s “Menopause” opens the anthology, a perceptive tale about what came before the patriarchal pathologization of menopause, rendered in salient and painterly visual prose that anthropomorphizes the “hawa” or the “blood clay.” In her words to me, “creating this comic helped [her] reflect on the cultural and historical aspects of menopause” as she was entering that stage of her life, and the “experiences of other cartoonists helped her gain perspective and feel less alone.” Burdock’s story is followed by the inimitable Lynda Barry’s “Menopositive,” a flashback to her childhood to the time she learned her aunt “had a baby house inside of her and the doctor took it out.” As expected of Barry, the comic has a lively, sketchbook-like feel to it. Drawn against a background of lined (not-yellow) legal paper, it is expressly uninhibited in style, and is as humorous as it is revealing of how the silence surrounding menopause leaves those expecting it unprepared.
The invisibilization of menopause and of older women is echoed by Carol Tyler in “Invisible Lady,” as well as in my personal favorite, Mimi Pond’s Eisner winning short comic “When the Menopause Carnival Comes to Town,” a whip-smart take on how older women are perceived by society. It features a mother-daughter pair exploring said carnival, viewing funhouse mirrors and other visual metaphors, such as the “Mood Swing” ride and the centrifugal “Hormone Scrambler,” where the protagonist asks, “Is this a metaphor?” It is one of those comics that takes full advantage of the medium, that despite having a substantial textual narrative lets the images do the heavy lifting. Pond’s ingenious and masterful visual characterization is hard to put into words, but I was particularly struck by the clever subtlety of how a metaphorical carnival doubles as a raw but nuanced analysis of how women are seen as “freak shows” when they let their anger show or even simmer on the surface instead of shrinking it down to near invisibility.
The diverse range of genres found in the anthology, as well as of narrative and drawing—from memoir/diary comics to strips to sci-comm to satire— is a delightful testimony to the flexibility afforded by the visual language of comics. My only quibble is with Roberta Gregory’s comic “The End, For Now,” where the author writes, in a tone that came across as unnecessarily dismissive, “and the weird kid who does not speak English.” Naturally, I assumed that in an anthology so sensitively rendered on all other counts, the author must be going somewhere with that declaration. Maybe she would explain how in hindsight she thought that characterization was unkind, or perhaps something about how kids make snap judgements, but I was a little disappointed to find that it was not the case. But this remains a minor criticism in an otherwise empathetic, funny, perceptive, and formally imaginative anthology, which draws attention to the power of graphic storytelling in evocatively highlighting lesser-known lived experiences.
My slight discomfort with Gregory’s story (well, just the one panel to be fair; the rest of the story was a rather humorous take on the anxieties of one’s first period) was also assuaged by the one following it: Jennifer Camper’s “A Slow Intermittent Leak,” a hearteningly humorous tale of coming to terms with one’s last period told, in tandem with the story of a leaky pipe under the sink and a building manager who calls her an “old hag” in a text meant for somebody else. In a visual style strongly reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi’s black-and-white work in Persepolis, the story ends with the protagonist finding hope in a cohort of unapologetically loud young girls who effectively tell off two older men, who called them “nasty sluts” on overhearing the girls talking about their periods in a diner.
As it tends to be the case with anthologies, some pieces shine brighter than others in terms of style, formal ingenuity, or artistry. But what makes Menopause a particularly strong collection is that almost every story in it offers a perspective that needed to be platformed. From Monica Lalanda’s account of navigating menopause with the dual perspective of a medical doctor and of a woman who was conditioned to associate menopause with shame, to Dana Walrath’s part sci-comm, part cli-fi comic that uses hot flashes as an entry point to a narrative about the environment in tandem with fertility in four-paneled pencil sketches, to Susan Squier’s account of surgical menopause (illustrated by Shelly L. Wall), the comics that Czerwiec curated from across disciplinary boundaries and professions shows an impressive range. An image that stuck with me from Squier’s “Surgical Menopause—In Ten Postures,” is one from the last page encompassing postures nine and ten, after she has her ovaries removed. As far as composition goes, it is a fairly simple layout: the page is divided into half by two vertical panels that split a sitting posture of Squier’s Sukhasana pose longitudinally. On the right, the caption reads “I start keeping chickens…For the Eggs. As they say.” The page underscores the uncanny ability of comics to carry affect through associations in small, subtle ways that register with unexpected intensity.
In sum, and especially considering that it was listed in New York Times’ “Best Graphic Novels of 2020” list and won the 2021 Eisner for Best Anthology, Menopause: A Comic Treatment is a testament to how graphic medicine has grown over the past decade, not only as a field of study, but as an intersectional movement that values perspectives from diverse voices from beyond the medical field, to challenge previously held misconceptions about the body, health, illness and everything that lies in between.