Comic book reviews: The Late Child and Other Animals

Sometimes when you read a book your initial reaction is uncertainty, and you ask yourself “How do I feel about this?”  Such was the case with The Late Child and Other Animals published by Fantagraphics.  I finished it almost three weeks ago, and it took me this long to think it over and finally feel that I could sit down and write about it.

The Late Child and Other Animals is written & colored by Marguerite Van Cook and drawn by James Romberger.  It is an autobiographical work.  The first two segments look at the life of Van Cook’s mother Hetty Martin in England during & after World War II, with the remainder of the book offering a view of Van Cook’s childhood & teenage years.

The Late Child and Other Animals cover

Hetty was a woman who had a difficult life, who had to find the strength to overcome numerous obstacles.  During World War II her husband, like millions of other young men from Great Britain, was drafted into the armed forces.  While her husband served abroad, back at home Hetty, her parents and her siblings were among the numerous civilians forced to endure the nightmare of the Blitz.  Van Cook & Romberger powerfully bring across how the horrors of the war existed alongside the mundane, how the British people strove to endure and go about their daily routines, never knowing when death might fall from above.

The end of the conflict brought little peace to Hetty herself.  Tragically her husband was killed while still stationed abroad, not in battle, but in an accident, when his truck drove off a bridge.  Now widowed, Hetty struggled to retain custody of a young child who she has recently adopted.

A few years later Hetty gave birth to a daughter, Marguerite.  The child was conceived out of wedlock, the result of an affair with a married man.  Hetty was forced to appear before a board of inquiry to plead her case, to convince the government that she should be allowed to keep her daughter.  Van Cook & Romberger render this sequence as a surreal nightmare, the middle-aged puritanical men of the Court morphing into a flock of ravenous crows.  The writing, art and coloring all work to evoke the psychological & emotional duress that Hetty endured throughout the hearing, a thinly-veiled inquisition.

The Late Child and Other Animals pg 46

From the perspective of 2015, it must be difficult to conceive of what Van Cook’s mother had to go through in order to convince the government not to take her child away.  In certain respects the pendulum has swung in completely the opposite direction.  Now it often is nearly impossible to remove a child from the most abominable examples of parents.

Having said that, the underlying forces and attitudes behind the ordeal Hetty faced definitely remain.  The moralizing, misogynistic judgments that she endured in that official hearing still exist in society, manifesting themselves in numerous other arenas.

The narrative The Late Child and Other Animals then shifts its focus to Marguerite, who grows up in & around Hetty’s hometown of Portsmouth.  Various facets of post-war British society are viewed through her young eyes.  Van Cook’s narration & dialogue is very expressive.  The art by Romberger, in conjunction with Van Cook’s coloring, evokes a variety of moods & atmospheres.  They very successfully bring to life this past era.

The Late Child and Other Animals pg 80

The jump to the final segment of The Late Child and Other Animals is unfortunately jarring.  Marguerite is now a teenager in France in the late 1960s.  She is living with her friend Catherine’s family in Paris, and she accompanies them to the northern coast of France for a lengthy summer holiday.  It is never explained how Marguerite came to be in France, how she knows Catherine, or what happened to Hetty.

While on holiday, Marguerite is given a pet rabbit to care for.  At the end of the summer, though, after having bonded with the rabbit, it is taken from her by Catherine’s mother Yvonne, who has it slaughtered right before Marguerite’s eyes.  I was left pondering the motivations of this seeming act of petty cruelty.  It was one of the aspects of the book that I’ve been continually thinking over since I finished it.

Marguerite had previously depicted Yvonne as a somewhat formal, rigid individual lacking in emotional warmth.  Was the French woman merely being hurtful by having the rabbit killed?  Or was she, in her brusque manner, attempting to teach the English teenager a lesson, to show her that life is not fair, that it will often be very harsh, as well as to demonstrate the transient nature of existence?  After this incident, the young Marguerite is contemplative…

“It seems that things must change. The adult world is barbarous. I began to reconstruct my romantic exclusive view of the world, though now I was a little less pure than when the season began.”

The incident prompts Marguerite to begin experiencing some of the disenchantment that many of us go through in our teenage years as we become more aware of the unpleasant realities of the world, the ones that challenge our youthful optimism & idealism.

The Late Child and Other Animals pg 168

Another aspect of this occurred to me.  Shortly before the rabbit was slaughtered, Marguerite had joined Catherine, her parents and her extended family in an enormous end-of summer feast, a culinary extravaganza containing numerous exquisite dishes and recipes.  All of this, when you think of it, came some somewhere; the ingredients did not just materialize out of thin air.

As the summer draws to a close, Marguerite has returned to Paris with Catherine and her family.  One autumn evening, Yvonne serves a stew that Marguerite finds “delectable.”  Asking what it is, she is informed that it is rabbit.  She then asks if it is HER rabbit, and the answer is yes.  Marguerite accepts this.  As Van Cook writes of her younger self, “And so it was I ate my pet and remembered all the fun times of the summer.”

Yes, this could be regarded as a rather blasé attitude.  But I recalled something that filmmaker John Waters wrote in his 1981 book Shock Value.  Reacting to viewers’ outrage that he actually killed a chicken during the filming of Pink Flamingos, Waters queried…

“Don’t most of the people who are horrified at this scene eat chicken? How do they think it gets to their plates? The chickens don’t have heart attacks, for Godsake!”

As with other elements of the narrative, I think that Marguerite’s actions and reactions here are somewhat open to interpretation, offering the reader food for thought (no pun intended).  There is a great deal of depth to the material that Van Cook & Romberger present in The Late Child and Other Animals.  This is one of those works that undoubtedly benefits from re-readings.  I look forward to finding out what impressions it leaves me with when I examine it again in the future.

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