It takes a village to raise a child, the saying goes, but what about to mourn one? In his graphic memoir of, and memorial to, infant daughter Rosalie, who died in November 2011, Tom Hart thanks a disparate community of personal supporters and creative influences. He follows his list of authors on Rosalie Lightning‘s inside title page (“By Tom Hart and Rosalie Lightning and Leela Corman and the residents of New York City, Gainesville, Florida, New Mexico, and Hawaii … “) with acknowledgements on the next page ranging from Hayao Miyazaki and Roland Barthes to Idris Elba and Brian Eno. The sense is of a ragged, sprawling grief, searching for solace and support in family, friends, artistic theory, works of art (some of them touchstones and memento mori and coping mechanisms), even the artistic spirit itself (“I look for help in art and images”). Art is a way onward; it’s cathartic, and perhaps a balm, too. It can be no consolation for Hart to pen such a magnificent work, but Rosalie Lightning is a stricken, keening tribute.
It begins with “her favourite image”—an acorn tree growing in a single night, in Miyazaki’s film My Neighbor Totoro; Hart shows us his late daughter in front of the TV, raising her arms in imitation of the shooting-up sapling (“Magic”). From her little hand picking up an acorn, Hart next frames his own hand picking up an acorn, then him and wife Leela looking at it—their faces are creased, weathered with black lines, a scuffed and smeary blackness scratched onto the page behind him.
The grief comes in image-bursts, in swatches, in bold, even crude self-portraits, as if scrawled with anguish, raw and severe (“your best memories are your biggest torments”). Just a few scrapes of white in a black void are rain against a dark-blotted sky. Rosalie’s face and form are more simply sketched; her parents’ faces are more shadowed, drawn. Hart’s a longtime teacher of sequential art and his fluidity of form—comparing our visual space and emotional time perspectives (background, middleground and foreground like past, present and future); the ripping-along rhythm of clipped captions paired with expressive visuals—gushes out here.
Over the 12 chapters, juxtapositions between Rosalie come alive again in each frame’s present, and Hart’s grief-chilled words can be stunning, like sudden emotional gusts blowing you off-stride. Sidling in and out of a travelogue, dreams, a catalogue of eerie portents and memories of Rosalie’s particular phrases or questions, Hart always envelops us again in the bubble of his grief. Often, egg-like ovals of images appear out of black pages, art and life re-emerging from blackness. There remains the desire to affirm, to create: “Within a day of our sequester, Leela says, ‘I want another baby.’ I protest, sobbing—’How can you think of replacing her?’ I prefer to imagine myself walking the globe like a husk for the rest of my days. But within two days it’s all I want. … My heart is a desperate, capacious hole.”
By Tom Hart
St Martin’s, 272 pp,