Comics is a great medium for communicating complex or divisive topics, and so it makes sense that embedded within comics history we can find stories of abortion. Insane as it is that in 2015—forty-two years since Roe v. Wade—politicos are still arguing against a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, here we are. As many of us reluctantly reengage in a topic that we felt was signed, sealed, and delivered, it’s interesting to consider two comics about abortion—one published just months after the US Supreme Court legalized abortion, and the other published just a few months ago.
Not Funny Ha-Ha, a Handbook for Something Hard (2015), by illustrator and musician Leah Hayes, is written with the cool self-confidence of an author whose experience of abortion is one that is safe, accessible, and legal. The writing is stripped of any reference to “choice,” abortion jargon of years past, and favors the more contemporary and firm “decision.” It smartly ignores the “why” of abortion because that, my Republican friends, has already been argued to the point of exhaustion, and instead deals strictly with the “how.”
To that end, the book is written handbook-style to someone who has chosen to have an abortion:
“So you just found out that you’re pregnant.”
Hayes speaks frankly and directly to the reader, who presumably is pregnant and would like to know more about abortion. She goes on to depict two women—”country mouse” Mary, and “city mouse” Lisa—who have both decided to have abortions, but chose different methods: surgical and medical. You learn from their examples, but Hayes never loses connection with the reader, and continues to address her:
“Your doctor will tell you what to expect.”
While the writing suffers a certain didactic detachment, the drawings add some emotional balance. Nearly every character, including the security guard who frisks Lisa upon entry to the clinic, has an expression of downcast melancholy with a rosy, tear-jerked face. To Hayes’s point—this is a handbook for something hard. Just because abortion is legal, accessible, and relatively affordable in some locations in the US doesn’t mean you won’t spend a good part of the process looking like a sad doll in the rain.
For all the nuts-and-bolts directness of the content, the book itself is cloaked in obscurity. Admittedly, it’s a relief that a book about a so-called woman’s topic isn’t mindlessly draped in hot pink, but the mustard yellow—a clear attempt at gender neutrality—seems so understated as to make the book easily overlooked. And honestly, I still can’t make heads or tails of the title. Not Funny Ha-Ha, a Handbook for Something Hard leaves a lot to the imagination, to say the least. It’s as though Hayes doesn’t want to indicate what the book is about until you’ve already started reading it.
Joyce Farmer and Lyn Chevely wasted no time in creating Abortion Eve (1973). Described as “a discussion about the legality of abortion, what to expect during an abortion, head trips—before and after, and much more…” this 32-page underground comic book was published within months of the United States Supreme Court’s decision to legalize abortion. At the time, Farmer and Chevely had just completed the raunchy and controversial first issue of Tits & Clits (1972), and were both pregnancy counselors in southern California. From experience they realized there was a great need for practical information about safe abortion.
Abortion Eve tells the story of the “first” women in a new era of abortion. Five women—Evelyn, Eva, Evie, Eve, and Evita—meet by chance at a clinic, each in search of the procedure. The characters team up to tell the stories of several demographic circumstances, from the perspectives of an upper middle class 42-year-old, a pot-smoking hippy, a religious teenager, a middle class black woman, and a latino woman with a controlling husband. In thought bubbles, the women judge each other in socially cliched ways as they process their own decisions to undergo abortions. The wealthy woman thinks the teenager is a tramp, and assumes the black woman wasn’t even using birth control, and everyone thinks the hippy is irresponsible and ridiculous. (After all, this would be her second abortion)
Eventually, the women learn to empathize with each other and accept that it doesn’t matter why they have each chosen to do this. They go on to support each other through all five abortions, which all entertainingly take place on the same day. Afterwards, they celebrate with pastrami sandwiches and “Abzug” beer, a presumed pun on both it’s German translation (discount beer) and Women’s Movement activist, Bella Abzug.
Unfortunately, Abortion Eve never sold very well and remains a lesser-known comic of the 1970s underground movement. By contrast, Not Funny Ha-Ha sold out of its first printing a week before it was released. Although it’s usually a misstep to confuse market popularity with social politics, I hope this is an indication we won’t need to dust off our “Right to Choose” picket signs and hit the streets any time soon. But if we do, I’ll meet you there.