January 06, 2022


“Sarah’s Scribbles” Collection No. 4: Oddball. By Sarah Andersen. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

A Tale as Tall as Jacob: Misadventures with My Brother. By Samantha Edwards. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     Most people feel from time to time as if they just don’t belong. Some people feel that way almost all the time. Some of those slide into depression or turn to alcohol, other drugs, obsessive social-media use, or other bad habits or addictions. A few, though, turn to art. And that is what Sarah Andersen does in her Sarah’s Scribbles chronicles of a 21st-century twentysomething woman and her cat, dog, rabbit, brain, uterus and other cleverly drawn cartoon characters, some of whom even appear on stickers – the book includes a page featuring a dozen of them. Sarah’s Scribbles works unusually well because it clearly depicts cartoon Sarah’s foibles and concerns as a member of her generation – but also manages to touch on some multigenerational concerns that help it reach out beyond Andersen’s own age group. In fact, Andersen has an amusingly skewed view of aging, as in a four-panel offering called “Aging Millennial Humor” that shows a wheelchair-bound character (resembling a much older cartoon Sarah) talking about a dog while using slang that nobody around her understands anymore (“heccin good pupper,” “13/10 good boi,” etc.). And if that character does not quite fit in, neither does current-age cartoon Sarah in many other strips. “Anxious Friends” has her and another woman telling each other they are nervous about going to a party, clasping hands in solidarity, then standing together against a wall at the party while everyone else interacts. Elsewhere, cartoon Sarah is identified as being one among the group of “people who are terrified of vulnerability,” trying to cope with people who are empathetic. Still elsewhere, cartoon Sarah describes herself as “being an oddball with hyperspecific interests.” But not everything in Sarah’s Scribbles is about difficulty dealing with people and fitting in: some strips are about difficulty dealing with people and getting them to pay attention and understand things. In one of those, a woman keeps asking cartoon Sarah how she draws so well, Sarah keeps saying “practice,” and the woman blithely keeps re-asking the question or trying to figure out something other than “practice” that might explain it. In another, a fashion designer keeps asking what women want in clothing, completely ignoring cartoon Sarah’s repeated statements that she wants to be comfortable. And then there are the strips focusing on Sarah’s internal thoughts and everyday challenges. Andersen finds ways to make all her foibles relatable. For instance, a “How I Tell Stories” page shows cartoon Sarah walking from “Beginning” to “Middle” before turning in a new direction at “Detour” and then proceeding to “Another Detour,” and “Another Detour,” and so on, apparently ad infinitum. And “Suddenly Finding a New Obsession” shows a bored-looking Sarah, at a computer, suddenly perking up and becoming super-wide-eyed with involvement in something-or-other – with the fourth and final panel showing frog decorations all over the walls, shelves, computer itself, and even on Sarah (who is wearing a frog costume). Encapsulating Andersen’s feeling of being an outsider is one seven-panel page on which she is talking with her personified brain, which says “We are anxious because…” – leading cartoon Sarah to ask, again and again “Because why?” And her brain repeatedly answers, “Because.” That is all the answer Sarah is going to get. A somewhat different encapsulation is a four-panel strip in which cartoon Sarah, while watering her garden, talks about being kind to her peers because “support helps people grow,” after which a flower asks her, “What about being kind to yourself?” The final panel shows an angry Sarah about to stomp the flower. Well, being kind to yourself is tough for many people…

     Being kind to others can be a challenge, too, especially when their “otherness” is caused by significant physical and/or mental and emotional issues – such as attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). That condition lies at the heart of Samantha Edwards’ graphic novel, A Tale as Tall as Jacob, and if that seems a very heavy topic – and a potentially heavy-handed one inviting a preachy story – the book will be a surprise. There is no attempt here to diminish the difficulties, heartbreak and family stresses caused by having one child who is developmentally normal (narrator Samantha), one who turns out to have a pronounced case of ADHD (Jacob, as in the book’s title), and eventually a third child born into the midst of all the family issues, disruptions and uncertainties (baby Luke). This book’s cover neatly summarizes its topic, showing Jacob looming large over everyone else in the family (twice the size of the parents), rampaging through the house and stomping on or near books, furniture, even the family pets. Complicating matters involving Jacob further, beyond the ADHD (which makes things complicated enough), Jacob has a speech impediment that develops because of a congenital problem with his frenulum (the flap of skin that anchors the tongue to the bottom of the mouth). The problem is surgically corrected, but Jacob’s speech difficulties continue, and Samantha is for a long time needed as interpreter – only she can understand what he is saying. It would be easy for A Tale as Tall as Jacob to turn into melodrama or soap opera, and certainly it has elements of both, but this is basically a realistic and unexaggerated more-or-less autobiography (of Samantha) and more-or-less biography (of Jacob), effectively told using standard graphic-novel methods. The chapter titles make the basic topics quite clear. For instance: “In which Samantha must learn to be nice to Jacob (but he makes it so hard).” And: “In which Jacob-zilla tries to ruin my life” (Jacob has a fascination with Godzilla and often seems to be trying to imitate the famous monster). Samantha is not above making comments to Jacob such as, “You ruin everything fun” and “You are the worst and I hate you,” but she also dances with him at a relative’s wedding, plays with him in a treehouse after the family moves in anticipation of Luke’s arrival, and is amazed when he uses his unusual strength (which has been apparent since he was a baby) to grab a tree limb and chase off three older and bigger bullies. What comes through repeatedly in A Tale as Tall as Jacob is that it is very, very hard to live with a child with ADHD, and at times seems nearly impossible despite all the medical advances in understanding the condition and treating it (doctors eventually find medicine that helps Jacob). It also becomes clear that even if Jacob will be a perpetual outsider in some senses, in others he certainly does belong – to his sister, to his family, and even (with assistance) to school and various age-appropriate activities, in which he can engage with suitable modulation and help. There is nothing easy about having ADHD or interacting regularly with someone who does. But like any medical condition, ADHD does not have to become the defining factor in someone’s life or in the lives of other family members. People with ADHD will always, in a sense, be outsiders when it comes to groups or activities involving those who do not have the condition. But when families and others are willing to do the hard extra work needed to accept those with ADHD, these outsiders can learn that they are welcome inside a place of caring, affection and love.

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