Death has this way of opening doors, of showing the living paths they didn’t realize they could take.
“Mostly it is loss,” mused the German philosopher Schopenhauer, “which teaches us the worth of things.”
Denver-based graphic novelist R. Alan Brooks lived Schopenhauer’s words nearly a decade ago when his mother teetered on the edge of death during a health scare. She pulled through, but the experience wrung something new out of both Brooks and his mother.
“Just the thought of her dying sort of knocked me out of reality,” Brooks says during a Zoom interview. “It was so hard. It was so heavy and surreal and I thought, ‘Man, that’s going to happen eventually, and maybe I need to be reading books about grief to prepare for it.’ I guess I thought I was going to solve something. I didn’t solve anything, but one of the things that I did figure out was that people leave things unsaid. At the moment where my mother thought she was going to die, she said some things to me that she had never said to me in my life in terms of admitting fault. And that was really touching, but I was kind of like, why does it have to come to this to tell me this? So I think that part of grief was at least something that I knew I could explore.”
With help from graphic artist Sarah Menzel Trapl, Brooks investigates the confounding power of grief in a new graphic novella called Grieving Mall, out digitally and at select bookstores on September 19, when the pair will answer questions and sign copies at Mutiny Information Cafe in Denver.
The story follows a woman named Lorraine as she learns of her mother’s death. Lorraine’s not done too badly for herself: At work she’s the boss, and after hours she’s painting the town red in haute couture with a handsome suitor. But her relationship with her mother was strained, making the death an emotional labyrinth for Lorraine.
An abandoned mall felt like the perfect place to have Lorraine dissect her grief.
“In our discussions, Sarah and I were talking about the Tumblrs that you can find where people have broken into old malls and taken all these photos and how they seem to represent lost dreams,” Brooks says. “I think that there’s something about a dead, abandoned mall as a perfect representation of grief because it used to be so full of life, so much activity, so much human interaction. People met there, people fought their people, people bought something important there, and for all of that to be gone, for it to be this building that’s abandoned, it ends up being a very important visual representation of what we’re talking about in this book.”
Trapl had worked with Brooks last year as a colorist on the first issue of his serialized graphic novel Anguish Garden. As Brooks and Trapl finalized their idea for Grieving Mall, Trapl asked Brooks how he’d feel about Lorraine being a plus-sized character.
“Before working on this project, I was kind of feeling disconnected from my work in general,” Trapl says. “And I think working on the project I realized I wanted to draw a plus-sized character who I could relate to, because a lot of times in my illustrations before [Grieving Mall], I was not drawing people of my kind of body type, a bigger body. It was more like an industry standard of beauty. I’ve always struggled with not really feeling like I fit into that. So I really wanted [Lorraine] to kind of own her body and for the story to not be about her body. I think representation can be more than having it always be the discussion around a body—like, just having a character exist. That’s saying a lot too.”
For Brooks, it’s paramount that the artists he works with find real connection in the work.
“If they want to draw underwater unicorns or outer space frogs or whatever,” Brooks says, “I can find the human conflict in that and write a story that matters to me.”
“I think a lot about not defining characters based on who they are, race-wise or gender,” Brooks adds. “Obviously that has some influence on how the world interacts with them, but just trying to find what is a real human struggle for this person. Sometimes when I’m writing in the voice of somebody who is not male or black, then I have some checkpoints. Like with Anguish Garden, it was definitely intentional that I had [female, Denver-based artist] Dailen Ogden drawing it, so that I wasn’t just some dude writing women poorly. But so much of writing is just based in sincere compassion and empathy, and if you have that, then a lot of times you can find what is a common human struggle to someone.”
On the Shelf—with R. Alan Brooks and Sarah Menzel Trapl
‘Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books,’ by Ken Quattro
“It’s a book about comic books,” Brooks says. “It’s about the Black artists of the golden age of comics who were never credited, so it profiles these different black artists who drew comics in the ’30s and ’40s.”
Using primary source material from World War II-era black newspapers and magazines, Ken Quarttro highlights black comic pioneers E.C. Stoner, a descendant of one of George Washington’s slaves, who became the first black comic book artist and a renowned figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
‘Adventureman #1,’ by Matt Fraction, with art by Terry and Rachel Dodson
“It’s kind of like a throwback pulp hero who gets reincarnated as a single mother,” Brooks says.
This generation-spanning, swashbuckling send-off to classic comics utilizes the classic battle between good and evil set in a dieselpunk-inspired New York City.
‘Happiness,’ by Shūzō Oshimi
“It’s called Happiness but it’s really depressing,” Trapl admits with a laugh.
Oshimi’s serialized manga brings together the familiar bedfellows of high-school dread and vampires.
‘Uzumaki,’ by Junji Ito
“I think there’s something about Japanese horror comics in particular that is paced really differently than like American horror,” Trapl says. “It’s deeply disturbing in a way that I don’t really feel super often when reading anything.”
The series tells the story of the citizens of Kurouzu-cho, a fictional city plagued by a supernatural curse involving spirals.