Tom Hart, the Eisner-nominated cartoonist who is perhaps best known among comic fans for creating the idealistic, homeless, and brazen underground character Hutch Owen, is a master of capturing the full spectrum of human emotion. In Hutch Owen, Hart dug into anger, but he also explored hilarity and triumph. In his latest work, the skillfully-rendered graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning, Hart shifts into a different gear, exploring a more reflective and haunting experience from his own life.
Rosalie Lightning is a snapshot of the Hart family (Tom, his wife Leela, and Rosalie, the couple’s young daughter) from a roughly two-year stretch—from 2009 to 2011. Everything in the Hart household seems perfectly normal. The husband and wife pair work and involve themselves in creative pursuits, and they also play and spend time with their daughter. Rosalie likes to pick up acorns and enjoys watching scenes from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo. She loves the book Louis—Night Salad, demanding to have it read to her “over and over.” The family, while strapped for cash, still manages small trips. They go to corn mazes, and they investigate nature. Like I said, everything seems normal. Then, without any real warning, Rosalie, who is only two-years-old, dies.
Hart’s graphic memoir is certainly about the surprise and heartbreak of Rosalie’s death—how could it not be? However, Hart crafts something that reads more like a love letter than an obituary. Rosalie Lightning, in all of its sadness and pain, is focused on exploring the beauty of hope and love that can still be found in the world even after such a tragic loss.
The first image in Hart’s black-and-white graphic memoir, even before the book’s dedication, spotlights a group of acorns. As the story opens, Hart shows us that the acorns are no more. Instead, he shows the effects of the tiny seeds. There is now a forest of oak trees, full of life and thriving. As the panels progress, the image of the forest grows even larger. Hart wants us to understand the metaphor before we get fully submerged into Rosalie’s story. He seems to be acknowledging that the loss of Rosalie will hurt us, too, but her story isn’t about the acorns we lose. It’s about the trees that we gain.
While Rosalie Lightning has an ending that somehow manages to feel hopeful, there is a lot of hurt in Hart’s memoir, and he openly and honestly explores his grief.
Hart depicts the days following Rosalie’s death with a broken haziness. He searches for understanding in books and movies. He writes, “I look for help in art and images. Wondering what makes them work. Wondering what’s going on in my brain.” He can’t focus long enough to watch an entire film. His mind is too fractured. He continuously thinks about missing signs that Rosalie was sick. Could he have overlooked something? Were there clues? Hart recalls Rosalie’s tendency to repeat the phrase “Daddy up!” In one striking panel, Hart draws himself and his wife on a bench. He asks Leela, “Are you saying she knew she was leaving? She was going ‘up’?” Leela replies, “What the soul knows can be scary…” They look for answers to things that have no answer.
Some of Hart’s questioning to himself takes on the existential. On a blackened page, which also happens to be the darkest depth at the bottom of a pit, small questions surrounded in blotches of fragmented light from above are all that we can see:
“She knew she was going?”
“What do we come here to do?”
“What meaning do we make of things?”
“Was she trying to tell us?”
If only Hart’s questions could have an answer. If only his pain could find comfort.
At times, Hart makes his confusion appear bluntly—even aggressively. On another darkened page, he asks, “What do you do when your child dies?” His response is one that stings in its truth: “You fall,” he says on a separate page. And the next panel hits even harder: “Into a hole.” There is no further down that he can go.
The way Hart uses his pen is another way that he presents his bewilderment over his daughter’s death. In the panels depicting Rosalie’s death, Hart’s images become unfocused and blurry. As the paramedics are trying to revive Rosalie, the shapes and outlines mesh—doors and silhouettes become darkened. You can see Hart’s emotions on display. At times, being so present is too much. In one small panel, we see Hart holding his daughter for the last time. What follows is blackness. For readers, it’s a time for us, too, to mourn.
As time progresses and Hart and Leela start to work through their healing, they begin to debate whether they should try to have another child. Leela is the first to state the fact directly. She says, “I want another baby.” Hart is upset—even sickened—by the thought, but he soon draws himself in a disoriented portrait reflecting silently, “It’s all I want, too.” It is in the scenes such as this one, with such a raw and uncensored sense of himself, that Rosalie Lightning becomes so powerful.
After any death, there is always a sense of rebirth. The story of Rosalie is no exception. Hart and Leela reflect on their daughter’s life. While it was inarguably short, it was also, without question, important. Hart thinks back to his daughter’s favorite stories: Louis—Night Salad, Ponyo, and My Neighbor Tortoro. He realizes that his daughter’s own life story is much like the ones she so loved to explore. They, like Rosalie’s, end with hope—with the belief that our love can never cease. After all, Rosalie Lightning is a reminder that love can’t ever really die after it’s been planted. The proof is in the acorn.