What do you do when your child dies? That’s the anguishing question behind Rosalie Lightning: A Graphic Memoir (St. Martin’s, Jan. 2016), the extraordinary new graphic novel by Tom Hart. Its heartrending pages recount the sudden death of Rosalie, Hart’s two-year-old daughter in 2011 and the grieving process for him and his wife, acclaimed cartoonist Leela Corman (Unterzakhn). It’s an unsparing, brutally painful memoir that conveys the tragedy as well as the spirit of a young child cut off so quickly. Rosalie’s singular quirks—a love of acorns, her special vocabulary, her enjoyment of a comic by the European duo Metaphrog—are beautifully captured, making her an individual in addition to a symbol of love and loss.
When he isn’t making comics, Hart runs the Sequential Arts Workshop (SAW) comics school in Gainesville, Fla. But when I spoke with him via Skype, he was in Sydney, after teaching an intensive two-week course on cartooning on a small island off the coast of Tasmania. It was a hot morning in Australia, and Hart was at a friend’s house; a dog had just stolen a stuffed monkey from Molly Rose, his second daughter, and life, he said, was good and normal. Rosalie Lightning is a reminder of a different time.
By his own admission, Hart has spent three years retelling the worst two months of his life, a period that began in November 2011. Hart and Corman found Rosalie unresponsive one morning, after what had seemed a typical night. She was taken to the hospital, where her parents made the decision to take her off a ventilator. There was no warning, and no obvious cause, which made her death all the more shocking and painful.
Hart immediately began making notes, not even certain why. “As soon as she died, I wrote constantly,” he recalls. The work helped him keep track of his emotions. “You’re not capable of sorting anything out so soon after, so mostly it was to occupy myself.”
The book moves back and forth in time to show Rosalie’s birth and life, and the emotional devastation that Hart and Corman experienced. Friends reached out to them, leading to trips to Hawaii and New Mexico and a grief counseling workshop. The book ends on New Year’s Day, 2012, when a particular interaction with a child allows Hart to find some acceptance. Life will go on, he realizes, but it will never be the same.
Not surprisingly, Hart has created a book with no easy answers. His scrappy, brisk comics have consistently confronted social systems and the quest for happiness. He emerged from the Seattle comics scene of the early 1990s along with Ed Brubaker (Criminal), Megan Kelso (Watergate Sue), Jon Lewis (True Swamp), and Jason Lutes (Berlin). Almost all of them won Xeric grants (a grant established by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cocreator Peter Laird to help young cartoonists print and distribute independent work). Hart won for Hutch Owens, the first of many books that would explore the conflict between corporate consumerism and free will, as embodied by the character Hutch Owen, an often angry but eloquent homeless man who spouts truths and frequently clashes with various corporate foils. Imagine a comic about a smarter Homer Simpson vs. Mr. Burns, drawn by a punk Charles Shultz.
Although not yet a household name, Hart may become one with Rosalie Lightning. He is a cartoonist’s cartoonist. “Tom is a genius,” Brubaker wrote in an email recalling their Seattle days. “Tom’s work had this daring emotional honesty to it. And so did Tom. He was always a true artist, never worried about being cool or following trends.”
Hart recalls that “our scene in Seattle in the ’90s had literary aspirations for comics.” He adds: “Our heroes were Chester Brown and Dan Clowes, but even they were mostly surrealists first. Our influences were more literary, cinematic, and musical. I loved Calvino and Werner Herzog and the dramatist Peter Brook. We all believed comics could and should tackle the themes that literature, theater, and movies had been tackling.”
Hart’s love of literary comics informs Rosalie Lightning’s powerful scenes. As he and Corman traveled and dealt with the reality of life, he kept writing. “In all that time, I was just trying to stay present,” Hart says. While in Hawaii, he began thinking that his notes should be a book, although he says, “I [already] knew it would be one, because that’s what I’ve always done all my life—turn things, especially emotional experiences, into books.”
When the incident that ends the book happened, Hart realized he had come to a natural endpoint and started “taking everything I’d gathered into this huge binder of thoughts and emotions, not knowing how long it would take to create the book.” It took three years. Hart’s devotion to telling Rosalie’s story became something like a mission, but it was also crucial to his healing. “The writing contained a lot of intellectual things, like how to move on and what this new space in the world is,” he says. “But I think to get to a point where I could be ‘in the world’ in a better way, I had to go through the process of drawing and sculpting it very slowly.”
This writing process may sound grueling, but Hart has no regrets. “I had to do it,” he says, with no hesitation. “Often, it was pretty much all I wanted to.” Over the next year and a half Hart would establish SAW and become a father again, but working on Rosalie Lightning became “a strange sort of private time. It was hard but it was really necessary.”
Hart started a Tumblr to track the process of making Rosalie Lightning, including bits that got lost or were especially hard to write; the first few chapters were published as mini comics. (Corman wrote her own comic about Rosalie’s death, published online in Tablet Magazine.)
The positive response to the minis helped Hart keep working, and early reviews are raves. But now a new part of the process has begun with the book’s January launch. Even in the best of times, the repetitive questions that come with promoting a book can be tiring, but the questions people will ask about this book go into painful territory. He admits to some anxiety about the process, but says, “I’m proud of the book, and I think it did something to honor her spirit.”
Although Hart and Corman’s decision to have another child is described in the graphic novel, the birth of Molly Rose isn’t—a deliberate choice that avoids the appearance of a happy ending. “It was really important, because the book is not about that. If you lose a child and are lucky enough to be able to have another one at some point, that may go a long way to healing, but I don’t think that’s the story I needed to tell. If there was a plan to it or if there’s a purpose to what happened, it had to be about bringing us to a new understanding. I think trying to understand what these messages were—what was sort of cosmically required of us—was what was really important.”
After several years at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Hart and Corman moved to Gainesville in 2011 to open SAW, where they both teach. The class is small—about 14 students—and diverse, including people from New York, Boston, and Mumbai. It’s one of only three standalone comics schools in the U.S. (along with the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., and the Joe Kubert School in Dover, N.J.), and it has an intensive one-year curriculum that immerses students in the emotional experience of making comics.
Teaching has given Hart a view of the evolution of making graphic novels. When his generation started making comics, there was much less attention on the form, whereas today’s students often get contracts for their own books a few years out of school. “There were less eyes on you, and the disdain from the rest of the world was more palpable,” he says of his early days. “But now people have a lot of reference points for what a graphic novel is, and much more encouragement.”
SAW is run on a small budget, like many key comics institutions, by a hardscrabble, dedicated base of people making less money than they should. Comparing its first few years to a “one-room schoolhouse,” Hart values the closeness and the DIY aspect. “I think it’s part of the whole learning experience.”
For Hart, 2016 will be a busy year. His earliest minicomics were recently reprinted as She’s Not into Poetry, and The Odyssey of Sergeant Jack Brennan—a retelling of Homer’s epic written for Iraq war vets that Hart edited—comes out from Pantheon in April. Finally, he has an instructional book publishing later in the year—The Sequential Artists Workshop Guide to Creating Professional Comic Strips, revealing techniques he learned from tight deadlines. “I learned many strategies for surprising yourself as a creator and keeping yourself engaged,” Hart says. “The book’s thesis is that we don’t need to know what we want to say before we start, that we can start and learn what we want to say as we create.”
Hart is also putting together notes for a new project that he’s been chipping away at since 2003. Though eager to pick up that project, dealing with the Rosalie book has helped him understand some things about his own work, even though finding the language to describe it evades him. “I want to keep mining something—I don’t want to do something trite,” Hart says. “I actually think I need to keep working with this loss a little bit more. I don’t know what’s next, but I don’t think I’m done with the story of losing Rosalie.”