Death is for the birds

Boulder cartoonist Will Betke-Brunswick tells a devastating, heartfelt tale of grief (with penguins) in new graphic memoir

Courtesy: Tin House

When people talk about losing a loved one, some like to say the grief doesn’t get smaller over time, you just grow bigger around it. 

For cartoonist Will Betke-Brunswick, who lost their mother to cancer 13 years ago, that sentiment doesn’t quite ring true.

“It’s never happened for me,” the Boulder-based artist says. “I still feel like my grief is big and I’m small.”

Betke-Brunswick transformed that big grief into a moving and poignant graphic memoir titled A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings, due to be published by Tin House on Nov. 15.

The story follows the main character, a penguin named Dooger — the author’s real-life nickname — as they grapple with their mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis and the last 10 months of her life.

In scene after scene, Dooger and their mom (a fellow penguin called Mumin) share moments both hilarious and heartbreaking. The story is told with a delicate touch that’s as much a tribute to a child’s love for their mother as a primer on how families cope with tragedy. 

For instance, take this devastating line of dialogue from Dooger: “She doesn’t want to talk about death, and my dad thinks talking about it will help us ‘prepare’ and Marci thinks my mom is taking care of all of us as she’s dying.”

Betke-Brunswick, who received their Master of Fine Arts from California College of Arts, says the decision to explore such painful themes through cartoonish bird characters arose out of a need to separate themself from the

subject material. It helped them access those difficult emotions in a creative, cathartic way. 

“It was just too emotionally difficult to draw my mom dead,” Betke-Brunswick says. “I was like, ‘I can draw a horizontal penguin.’ Once I had drawn her as a penguin, I got attached to all of us as penguin characters.”

Healing through cartooning

But death isn’t the only big subject broached by this feathered family. Dooger also comes out as genderqueer in the book. They explain to their dad by reading from Wikipedia, but his response falls short of validation.  

“I had patients who regretted their sex change operations,” Dooger’s father responds.

Dooger reacts indignantly: “Were you even listening?”

Betke-Brunswick can laugh about that exchange now, but his father’s response was painful at the time. “That was not OK to say,” they explain. “That is not an appropriate response when coming out as genderqueer.”

This intimate exploration of gender identity is another area where drawing the characters as birds helped free up Betke-Brunswick creatively.

“Drawing myself as a penguin — people don’t see a penguin and immediately think boy or girl,” they say. “And you don’t have to spend time and energy figuring that out. I can just exist as a character.”

In order to tap into this self-styled character, Betke-Brunswick, who works at the Boulder Public Library as a library coordinator, didn’t draw from diary entries of the time depicted in the book. They didn’t need to write down what happened as it happened — the pain of loss stayed fresh in their mind over the years.

“I wasn’t journaling,” they say. “This was all from memory. It’s very visceral.”

In the end, creating this book has been an important step for the author in processing their grief, even if the sense of loss has not diminished in any real way.

“[It has been] healing in the sense of both getting to create something out of my emotions, and that I got to spend time with her, because it was 13 years ago,” they say. “It felt good to sink into the two of us being in the same room, the two of us having a conversation again. That is something that I missed incredibly … it’s not something I get to do anymore.” 

ON THE SHELF: Will Betke-Brunswick: A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings, reading and signing. 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15, Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St. Tickets: $5:

Further reading

Five graphic memoirs that inspired Will Betke-Brunswick during the writing of A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings:

From Truth With Truth: A Graphic Memoir by Lawrence Lindell. Lindell explores so many types of comic forms in their memoir, mixing panels, full-page illustrations, silent pages, and overlapping words and images. He also includes photos and other documents. I am always inspired to experiment more when I read their work.

One! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry. Lynda Barry is one of my absolute favorite cartoonists. I love her monsters and demons, her big capital letters and how absolutely hilarious her comics are.

Everything is Beautiful and I’m Not Afraid by Yao Xiao. This book made me feel so many feelings! I was inspired by the intense feelings and quiet narration.

The Loneliness of a Long Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine. I love holding this book in my hands. It is so beautiful and deliberate. I like that it is a graphic memoir about being a cartoonist, not about some other life event.

Super Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition by Julia Kaye.I read this entire book in the Boulder library, while standing still in the middle of the graphic novel section. I usually favor four-panel comics, but this book made me appreciate the three-panel format