In keeping with our current Make-Believe issue this week's BiblioBitch features A Child's Life and Other Stories by Phoebe Gloeckner. A Child's Life is a riveting collection of illustrated stories (or comics or comix or graphic novel depending on who you talk to) that merge the fantastical with the realistic. Gloeckner has long been a celebrated artist in the underground comics world and the 1998 first publication of this collection helped bring a much-deserved larger awareness to her captivating work. Widely believed to be heavily autobiographical (despite a clause on the copyright page stating all stories and characters portrayed are fictional) the 2000 revised edition of A Child's Life is a collection in five progressive sections: "A Child's life", "Other Childish Stories", "Teen Stories", "Grown-Up Stories" and 'Paintings, Drawings, & Etchings".
The eponymous first section is a series of non-linear vignettes in the life of eight-year old Minnie in relation to her step-father, mother, sister and friends. Don't be fooled by the kid-friendly title: These stories, as well as the rest of the book, present a troubling (and too often real) version of girlhood filled with emotional and physical abuse. We painfully see the protagonist struggle with the growing awareness that many of her difficulties stem from her place in the world as female, without understanding the root causes of her treatment.
In "Other Childish Stories" Gloeckner moves into the realm of the surreal. One story, "Magda Meets Little Men in the Woods," follows a little girl on a walk through the forest, where she comes across different men who are a husband or boyfriend in her adult future. They frankly inform her of the grim reality of their to-be relationships in which she and her children will be mistreated and abused by them. "Teen Stories" contains the nightmarish "Minnie's 3rd Love" in which teenage Minnie has become enveloped in the seedy drug world of 1976 San Francisco. Famed comix artist R. Crumb wrote of 'Minnie's 3rd Love' that it "was one of the best comic stories I ever read in my life…a masterpiece".
The amazingly detailed drawings are gorgeous and engaging. Gloeckner draws in a realistic style, but she plays with her medium through techniques like adding elements to create distortion, such as big heads on tiny bodies to invoke the feeling that the situation at hand is warped and emotionally disturbing. Gloeckner does not set out to show the reader "this is the female experience" with a built in take-away moral. Because A Child's Life refrains from moralizing and is honest in its desire to re-create powerful emotion, it avoids the trap of being heavy handed.There is no agenda forced upon the viewer, allowing us to truly feel the emotions and experiences of these vivid stories.