In November 2011, artist and writer Tom Hart’s toddler daughter Rosalie died unexpectedly. Five years later, with the achingly beautiful memoir Rosalie Lightning, Hart has created a stunning graphic memoir of her life, giving readers a glimpse of his daughter – Rosalie who loved watercolors and bubble baths and turtles in the duck pond— as only an artist can.
“I don’t know how Tom Hart was able to make such a stunning, towering book out of his devastation and rage. It strikes me as the most gracious and humane thing that anyone could possibly do. Reading Rosalie Lightning is like standing at the edge of an abyss and watching someone construct a gleaming titanium bridge by sheer overwhelming force of love,” writes Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies. It’s easy to understand why the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection committee chose Rosalie Lightning as one of their picks for Spring 2016.
Tom Hart is a cartoonist and the executive director of the Sequential Artist Workshop in Gainesville, Florida. He is the creator of the Hutch-Allen series of graphic novels and books, and has been nominated for all of the major industry awards. He was a core instructor at SVA, teaching cartooning to undergraduates, working adults and teens alike, and now teaches sequential art at the School of Art and Art History at the University of Florida.
A few weeks ago at Barnes and Noble’s Upper West Side Manhattan location, Tom Hart sat down in front of an audience of readers to discuss Rosalie Lightning with Keith Mayerson, whose work appears in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, MOCA-LA, LACMA and the San Francisco Museum of Art, among other galleries and museums around the world. He’s on the Board of Trustees at the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art, and teaches at NYU and the School of Visual Arts. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. – Miwa Messer.
Keith Mayerson: It’s a great honor to be here with you, Tom, and thank you so much for asking me to be here to discuss this. I want to say in some ways a disclaimer. This is really subject matter that is almost impossible to talk about, at least in contemporary times. But of course, you wrote a book and drew a book to discuss it. I’ve never read a memoir like this before. I love Joan Didion and her Year Of Magical Thinking and so on, but I’ve never seen a comic as profound as this. I think I was more moved by this than anything, experiencing ideas of mourning, and using this language and vocabulary is really pertinent to this story.
How soon after what happened did you start on this work?
Tom Hart: Well, the truth is, I wrote immediately afterwards, a lot, just to sort of keep myself sane and to not merely stare into space and sort of welcome this horror. Instead, just writing to keep my brain sort of moving and questioning and things like that—immediately. And because I’ve always done comics and books and things like that, I think early on in that writing I was thinking structuring, in page compositions and stuff.
But the short answer really is that I wrote for about five weeks really intensively, and then had this binder full of notes and paragraphs and bits and dreams and things, and just sort of was paying attention that whole five weeks. I was trying to comprehend what had happened. That was a way of… I was just recording what had happened afterwards.
After the five weeks, I spent about three years drawing, and going back into the binder and figuring out how it would become a book.
KM: Art is not necessarily therapy. But hopefully it would be making meaningful works. When they’re great artists, they are making something that’s meaningful to them. Certainly, art can be a meditation. It’s interesting to me that you very quickly had to go to that avenue of drawing just to, I would assume, prevent yourself from jumping off a cliff and to just process this. When you were putting the book together, was it hard to switch from the criticality of putting something that’s so profound into a sort of form, and editing, and doing all those things? What was the process like? Were you setting up a structure for yourself and then letting your instinct carry through?
TH: That’s a couple of different questions. I think structurally I was trying to put the thoughts in order in the way that made the most sense for me, and in the way that helped me make the most sense out of what had happened. So that was largely intuitive. It was sort of following thought, one to another.
But underlying the sort of external structure was just the travelogue. We did a lot of traveling in those five weeks from here to there, and back again.
From a drawing standpoint, I was always very critical of the drawings, and never really happy. At a certain point I just realized that the rawness of the drawings had to be a part of the experience, merely because I couldn’t reach certain goals visually. Like, I wanted it to look a certain way. But structurally, I feel like it did its job, though.
KM: It’s really hard to have a picture that equates what it is, but I think it draws really close, and certainly for me it was very expressive and moving. Do you have models that you were following? You talk a lot about references in the book itself, which is really interesting, to see how much comics, literature, music and movies inform your and Leela’s views of the world. For the book itself and for the drawing, were you thinking about anything, or were you just putting your influences on the back burner while you were driving ahead with the rendering?
TH: There were some conscious influences. You know, I’m a huge fan of Fun Home, and I think that’s terrific, the way that she allows herself to go from thought to thought to thought, and to develop those thoughts inside of many essays. That looks like maybe six chapters long, or maybe it’s more. Each one is a thorough essay, and there’s a lot of overlap, and it’s terrific. So I think I was inspired by the intellect in that book, in allowing thought to be the leading…just the momentum of the book.
Visually it’s mentioned in the book that I was suddenly stricken by these EC Horror Comic images, these Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror… I’ve always admired the craft and I’d been able to notice the brushline and things, but I was never stricken by the drawings, like, “that’s very powerful.” So there was a part of me that wanted to learn how to draw those rocks and how to draw that mud, and rain and things like that. So there were those influences. And then, just, any artist has a million other influences that they’re probably thinking about, too.
KM: It reminds me a little bit of German Expressionism, of course, and the Die Brücke artists and the people like that, and Georg Grosz and Kircher…
TH: Oh, come on.
KM: Well, I think they’re exquisite drawings. I’m not a fan of rulers, and I teach in SVA, as you teach comics, too….perspective is something that I just don’t want to go into. I like using references, and obviously… I’ve already shot all my students across this book and talked about it. But the neat thing for them to see just instructively is that there’s a lot of use of reference. Because you have specificity of buildings and things that would be difficult to make up out of your mind. It’s always great to use photos and reference.
But the neat thing, too, is you are able to tell the story without using really rulers, except for the panel borders. And perspective, that’s intuitive. But because of that, it’s even more expressive and moving, I think, in how you’re renewing it. You’re really letting yourself go in a good way.
I love the movie Rembrandt, with Charles Laughton as Rembrandt, in the 1930s. It’s a great movie. It’s very influential for me. There’s a scene where his beloved wife, Saskia, dies, and his friend comes into the studio and says, “Rembrandt, why aren’t you at Saskia’s funeral? You should really be there?” He’s like, “Go away. I want to keep painting here (because he’s working on a portrait of her) while I still remember her, so I won’t forget.” Was that some of the impulse here, too?
TH: Why didn’t you tell me about that movie earlier? Yes — I was trying to keep her alive, you know, for me, in a lot of ways, by doing that. To some degree, I have a terrible memory, and I knew that if I just burned these things into the paper over three years or whatever, that she’d always be there in that book and elsewhere. Yeah, there was a lot of attempts to…I was trying to be with her still. I was trying to connect with her. There were times when I would have these dreams right after, and they were horrible and nice at the same times because she’d be in them. So yeah.
KM: Her spirit is really alive in this work. Just the way that you’re able to animate her in your drawing, and your experiences of your memories and so on… You really feel that you know her. The neat thing, I think, about this book, too, is that it acts as… I don’t know if the term momento mori is correct for this. But you know, in the olden days, when we were more used to…because of plagues and disease and lack of medical technology, people died more often, and families would have pictures of themselves with their infants who had passed and so on.
KM: When you’re dealing with ideas of the structure of this book, did you have, like, a big picture of how to begin and end? Or was it intuitive how you were putting these sections together, or in the formal construction, as you were saying, of the structure?
TH: A little of both. Again, there’s this underlying travelogue, so it was always I need this section, and then this section, and then this section. I had this binder full of diary entries that are records of what we experienced and talked about and thought and dreamt and things during those times. It was mostly a matter of picking out the parts that spoke to the sort of underlying mission, which was just to come to a new understanding.
So there was a lot of just brute force and intuition.I integrated a lot of ideas about editing and juxtaposition, and things like that.
KM: Sometimes, they say, to do biography you have to wait ten years, because it’s hard to edit. But what’s striking to me about this is that you started right away, and that you still were able, with all the intelligence and experience you’ve had doing comics, to be able to put this together in such a fantastic structure that really does take you on that journey.
In previous works, you’ve worked with allegory and icons. The neat thing about comics is you sometimes work with iconic characters that everybody can relate to. Scott McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics, talks about the power of the smiley face, and everybody can be the smiley face, or anybody can be Snoopy. And allegorical narratives that stand in for something much bigger than itself. With your Hutch Owens and with those stories, you were really working with an icon that wasn’t you, but maybe an avatar, within paradigms that you could really consciously structure and so on as an allegory.
Was it interesting for you (and perhaps not for your first time) to work directly talking in the autobiography, with characters that were you and Leela and Rosalie, and in a real life story rather than an allegory.
TH: Again, it was just sort of intuition and brute force that made me not even question that… Well, the truth is that there is sort of an allegorical element in there. There’s these cartoon versions, these Snoopy-like drawings in there…
KM: Oh, that’s right.
TH: That seemed important, because that kind of drawing has always been important to me, and that kind of storytelling, this cartoon storytelling, that at some point cropped up into the narrative of my own thoughts, and I realized that having that secondary thread, that was more of a cartoon allegory, was actually kind of important. So it is in there a little bit. It’s not the main thing, of course. For whatever reason, when it happened, I just knew I had to tell the story of us, and then that allegory sort of crept in. I never really thought about, like, sitting on it ten years, like you mentioned, or thinking about turning it into fiction.
KM: Did you initially think of this as a short form comic?
TH: Just as long as it needed to be. When I was writing, I didn’t know when I would stop writing. Like I said, there was this thing that happened at the end that made me think that was the end, but also I was starting to repeat myself and think myself into circles, and I realized I needed to engage with the world in a new way, so that new way would become taking the writing and turning it into drawings, and taking that and turning it into a story.
KM: Bits and excerpts have come out online (to build on the questioner’s previous comment a little bit). Was it edifying for you to have a positive response from readers? Were you nervous at first to present it to the world?
TH: No, I’ve never been nervous about putting my work out there. It was very edifying — I just like to know that people are out there.
KM: What do you hope that people will receive from the work?
TH: I don’t know. I don’t remember which friend of Leela’s at some point said, “A person never dies until every soul that they’ve touched dies.” It made me think that I could keep Rosalie’s spirit in some way alive. That would make me happy. And I tried to do it in a way that seemed the most positive, because I needed that for myself anyway.Whatever people are going out get of it, it’s good.
KM: You mentioned in the book to trust Nature, to find each other in solidarity, and to trust that. Do you feel we should trust Art, writing it and cartooning, too?
TH: When this happened, the thing I actually wanted the most, aside from Nature and solidarity with Leela, was art and images and stories. I wanted to see myself reflected in stories that have already been put out there in art and images. It’s always been an important way to deal with the world, but then I really needed it. So I looked, and I especially asked… That’s why I wish you’d sent me the Rembrandt thing earlier, because we would have maybe watched it. But I asked even friends. I said, “If there’s anything, a movie or a book or a poem that you can think of, send it my way.” Some people did, and it was really nice. But eventually I realized I had to find it myself. It actually is an important theme of the book, that looking for our story and other art… It was also very easy, because as the quote from Ben Lerner in the epigraph says, “there’s no such thing as a non sequitur when you’re in love, or, in this case, in this case, in this extreme pain.” So I saw our story everywhere.
So for me, art is—both to receive it and as a creator—really important. And sometimes I have a little twinge of guilt about that, because I think there are so many ways to save the world, and I am not sure art is one of them. But that’s the way I was compelled to try.