Aside from defecating or having sex, giving birth is one of the most common life experiences. Half of the world’s population is capable of doing it and every single one of us has been through it, even if we have no memory of it. But for all the comics out there that recount the tales of socially awkward teenage boys or the travails of caring for elderly parents, there is a dearth of comics about giving birth or that even include pregnant characters.
Why is that?
Birth happens all the time—about four kids are born per second, actually—but as common as that is, it rarely makes an appearance in comics. Birth is scary. It’s bloody. Sometimes it’s literally shitty, and more often it’s figuratively shitty. And it’s horrifically painful. But it’s also breathtaking and life-affirming. It’s got an intensity like nothing else. Even the most misanthropic grumpus would shed a tear to see a newborn baby look into the eyes of its mother for the first time. There’s magic in that moment, and a kind of heroism in getting there.
So why are there so few comics or graphic novels that dare to include pregnant characters? Does pregnancy lack a type of hipness or bravery because it’s so common? Or maybe our culture doesn’t take much interest in women’s bodies unless they’re strutting down runways in bustiers and angel wings. I mean, ask Donald Trump. Or Scott Walker. Or Mike Huckabee! They—and a frightening number of men-in-charge throughout history and across the world—care very little for women’s reproductive health or any of the suffering and courage it actually takes to get through a pregnancy. To them birthing children is just a woman’s lot in life. And besides, they don’t want to have to see that sh#@. Just pop a cigar in their mouths when it’s over!
Well, I for one want to see all of it. In part because I have to do it soon, and I’m a little scared about the shear physics of it. I’m not really the type to read What to Expect While You’re Expecting, but I am the type to read comics. It took some work, but I found three comics that, in varying ways, present pregnancy, labor, motherhood, parenting, and partnership.
“Am I shitting? It feels like I’m shitting!” Those are Alana’s first words in Chapter One of Saga. She is in labor on the tabletop of an auto shop.
Alana, winged citizen of the planet Landfall, continues to shout at her husband Marko, horned soldier from the moon Wreath and de facto midwife of the occasion. By the fourth page and after a brief but profane delivery, Marko hands Alana a tiny, bloody, wailing mess of a newborn baby. Alana instantly whips out a nipple and gets to breastfeeding as Marko chomps the umbilical cord with his teeth.
Almost immediately Alana and Marko argue about this little girl’s name to be. Pico? Beatrice? (No, Beatrice is a boring, good girl name.) They bicker about whether or not to “wing-bleed” the infant, an unmistakable metaphor for circumcision, but are interrupted by Prince Robot IV and his troops who are trying to capture the fugitive couple. The saga continues.
Saga is definitely not a comic about being pregnant or even giving birth, although kudos to Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples for depicting the process as something that takes moxie and a tough as nails attitude. If anything baby-related the comic is about partnership, compromise and co-parenting, and the fact that even though you have a kid life continues full force. The things that were important before this adorable cooing creature entered the world—like fighting for your life against intergalactic militants—are just as important now. See, you actually can hold a baby with one arm and a gun with the other if you have to.
The Oven (2015)
Sydney and Eric decided to start a family on a different planet. The planet they’re from was no good for this. After all, their government put hormones in their food supply that made everyone sterile and docile. This is the basis for The Oven, a fantastic sci-fi read by the talented Sophie Goldstein. So, the young couple flees to an intentional interplanetary community called “The Oven” where they can breed and pretty much do whatever they want.
Once they arrive the young couple is shocked—the place is a total dump. Their new home is a just a hut made of old space shuttle parts à la trailer park. Tarps, gutted couches, broken bottles and busted lawn furniture pepper the landscape. Inside their shuttle-hut they find all kinds of filth and disarray. Maggie, their very pregnant hostess, assures them that things will be different once more families join their community. But Sydney and Eric are already freaked out.
As they assimilate into their new culture, they discover that The Oven is both not of this world (there are two suns that will melt your skin off if you don’t cover up) and old world (women do the laundry and cooking and the men work in the fields and drink all the whisky). Sydney quickly learns new “lady-skills” like sewing, canning, and knitting. Eric, on the other hand, struggles to adapt and acquires a nasty drug habit as a way to cope with his unhappiness. Very “dude-like.”
After rescuing Eric from a possible overdose, Sydney breaks the news that she’s pregnant. Eric confesses that he wants to leave The Oven. He misses screens, among other creature comforts they left behind. In the middle of all this Maggie goes into labor and gives birth on the floor of her hut. (It’s a boy!)
The Oven is a strange place, like Ursula K. Le Guin meets Ina May Gaskin’s The Farm. It’s also an insightful story. Living in The Oven changed Sydney and Eric—it changed their relationship, it changed their desires and it ultimately ended their relationship. And that’s the risk of partnership and braving new adventures together. You evolve, you get to know yourself better, and perhaps unfairly, you owe all of that to the partner you leave behind.
Pregnant Butch (2014)
This is by far the most complete and in depth comic about pregnancy I’ve found, and it’s illuminating and relatable for those pregnant and not. It’s also a relief to those of us who—how should I say this—are not in daily contact with our inner moon goddess? For those of us who abstain from wearing ruffles and wrap dresses? Who can build our own bookshelves or change a flat tire? Pregnant Butch is basically an illustrated episode of This Old House except it’s all about baby-making.
A.K. Summers shares her “9 months in drag” with hilarious nuts-and-bolts honesty. It’s not that I think other women have been lying about the unpleasantness of pregnancy, but I think it’s probably hard to remember all the details of a mere 9 months when there’s so much more to discuss once you have an actual baby. The pregnancy experience recedes, the kid experience emerges, and the rest of us miss out on all the details. Usually, we hear that it was either miserable or magical. Instead, Summers breaks pregnancy down for you—fashion missteps, sidewalk puking, and all.
Pregnant Butch describes pregnancy as something that “de-butches” or that put her in a state of drag. Yet, more often we hear that pregnancy is “de-feminizing” (despite what Gap Maternity would have you believe). True, your boobs get bigger but so do your ankles and everything else in between. You’re always gassy and mucousy. You grow hair in places. So maybe what pregnancy does is take away the self, and part of that is wrapped up in a gender identity or affect. Your body is completely in service of creating another, and so whatever sense of yourself that is otherwise maintained on a daily basis through clothing, activities and general style, just goes away. The pregnant woman is “de-butched,” “de-feminized,” “de-selfed” in other words.
“In black stretch maternity pants will I still be recognized as butch?” Summers asks. The answer is no. You will not.
Other pregnancy-related comics:
The Weight by Melissa Mendes
Mowgli’s Mirror by Ollie Schrauwen
My Home Birth by Christen Clifford, illustrated by David Heatley
It Takes A Village by Healthy Aboriginal Network