Matthew Lickona's new graphic novel, "Alphonse," explores the abortion issue from a literary perspective. Jack Thornton recently interviewed Lickona about the novel and how he uses art to discuss a controversial topic.
Some literary works are nice and comfortable. You settle down with a blanket and a cup of tea and just lose yourself for a while. Others are more edgy and dark. They make you think about topics you prefer to avoid. They might challenge your preconceived notions and make you look at a sensitive topic from a different perspective.
“Alphonse” is one of the latter types.
Abortion is a topic that most consider too controversial to handle. It has become so polarizing and political that the human element is often lost in the tangled ideological battles. Matthew Lickona’s graphic novel, illustrated by Chris Gugliotti, tackles the abortion issue with grit, artistic integrity and courage, and focuses on the humanity at the center of the issue instead of the politics.
The story centers on Alphonse, a child whose heroine-addict mother attempts a late term abortion only to have a sentient, strong baby escape the attempt and flee the clinic with the help of a pro-life activist. The tension at the heart of the novel revolves around the reaction to the prenatal assault. It is a struggle between desire for revenge and the need for redemption with all the shadows and twisting emotions in between. The child at the center of this struggle is certainly unnerving, but ultimately human and that is why the story works.
“Alphonse” manages to tread the dangerous waters of the abortion issue in a thoughtful, compelling way that ought to appeal to everyone no matter what their political or religious views are. This is not a propaganda piece. Characters on both sides of the issue are portrayed realistically with both virtues and vices on display. Lickona’s ability to evoke sympathy for all the characters speaks to his insight and sensitivity to the human aspect of the issue. It’s difficult to not feel sympathy for the broken woman who attempts to abort the title character even if one disagrees with her decision. The pro-life activist, Ruth, who takes Alphonse in is on one hand heroic for her efforts to help the child, but some of her decisions and motivations are suspect. There are parallels between characters of both issues that highlight the difficult tensions inherent to the abortion issue.
The stark, black-and-white illustrations help uncover the intertwined darkness and hope of the tale, along with the shades of gray implicit in the humanity at its heart. Some of the images are startling and bleak, while others are comforting and hopeful. All are fascinating and enthralling and move the story along at a brisk pace.
Only the first two issues of the comic have been published so far. I hope that more will come soon.
I recently had a conversation with Lickona about “Alphonse.” Please read the interview below and visit alphonsecomic.com to buy issues one and two of “Alphonse” or to donate to the fund set up to help finance the next parts of the project.
Q. I’d like to start out by asking you about the genre—one that hits a pretty specific audience—in which you chose to present the story. Why did you decide to tell the story as a graphic novel rather than a prose novel or a screenplay? What do you hope to accomplish with this medium that you don’t think you could with the others?
A. “Alphonse” began as a sketch I made of a newborn being held aloft by a suction tube and yelling, “Get this %$#*@! thing off my head!” One sketch led to another, and I found myself drawing the first page of a comic.
After that, sequential art was just the form, in part because Alphonse was a kind of response to Gary Cangemi’s “Umbert the Unborn,” a comic strip that ran in the National Catholic Register. Umbert was a wonderfully cheerful fetus who argued the pro-life case from within the womb. That struck me as odd. I figured that if a fetus really was sentient, and really did know about legalized abortion, he’d be terrified. And angry. Because he’d know he could be killed with impunity at any time.
In retrospect, I think the format works because comics are a friendly medium for the outlandish and the visceral. Also because comics are friendly to a younger generation, one that has been immersed in visual entertainment from the get-go. I’d like for Alphonse to engage that generation.
Q. What were your chief literary influences as you pieced the story together? The segment titles draw on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, you’ve mentioned Umbert the Unborn already and have referred to Mary Shelley and Flannery O’Connor in previous interviews. I also saw similarities between some of the pictures in the dream sequences and H. P. Lovecraft’s dream depictions in “The Call of Cthulhu.” Are there any other literary references hidden in the words and images that you evoke? How do you use the literary tradition to tell your story?
A. As with the choice of format, a lot of what I put into “Alphonse” just bubbled up. It was only after I started going over what I’d written that I began to recognize the influences, literary and otherwise, that had shaped the story.
For example, you mention Macbeth. When I was in high school, I played Macduff to my older brother’s Macbeth. After I figured out that Alphonse would need to exit his mother via hysterotomy—a rare late-term procedure that is similar to a Cesarean section—the line about Macduff being “from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d” just naturally came to mind. After that, I found it easy to name each of the chapters using bits of the play’s text. All those bad dreams the characters have do indeed “murder sleep,” etc. Plus, there’s a lot in the play about nature being inverted or violated, which I think is fitting for a story in which a son tries to kill the mother who tried to kill him.
I won’t yammer on about Shelley or O’Connor except to say that Shelley’s Frankenstein is the best example of the sort of horror story I tried to write—again, something I realized in retrospect—and O’Connor gave me literary permission to place a freak at the heart of things.
I think your Lovecraft reference is fascinating, because in some ways, a fetus has the sort of frightening,mysterious life Lovecraft gave to his creations. People tend to accentuate the positive aspects of giving birth—and with good reason. I’ve been present for all but one of my wife’s deliveries, and I’m glad for that. But you can imagine a fellow like Lovecraft having a very different perspective: this tiny thing, growing in the warm, wet, dark depths of a person, slumbering, slumbering, then finally bursting forth from the nether regions, flailing and crying, covered in slime and causing great suffering to its host.
That resonates a little with the nurse’s dream in Chapter Two of “Alphonse.” As the dream progresses, she sees Alphonse at earlier and earlier stages of development. By the end, his brain is exposed and the only humanish thing about him are his rudimentary hands. Small wonder she wakes up screaming.
As for Alphonse’s dreams, they’re born of his mother’s chemically enhanced anxieties. She’s resolved to get the abortion, but she’s seen the graphic signs held up by protesters, and so she’s dreamed up this horrific abortion machine that she is terrified to face. Still, she’s more terrified of the alternative. I’ve read things from pro-choice people that cast the fetus as a kind of parasite, or pregnancy as a punishment. I tried to imagine what that would look like in a dream.
Q. Could you talk about the supporting cast? I found the characters surrounding Alphonse to be very intriguing. All of them reveal both strengths and flaws, and it seems that there are parallels and connections between different figures on both sides of the abortion debate. What contribution does the supporting cast make to the overall message?
A. In some ways, the supporting cast is really the principal cast. The story is as much about Alphonse’s effect on everybody else as it is about Alphonse himself. Ruth, for instance, is a young pro-lifer with a convert’s zeal, because she is just that: a convert to the cause. Opposing abortion has meant, for her, opposing her mother, a pro-choice journalist. Rescuing Alphonse is therefore important to her for a number of reasons, starting with saving a life, but followed by her estrangement from Mom.
Q. You mentioned that the “Umbert the Unborn” cartoon was a part the inspiration process that led you to “Alphonse.” I think it’s safe to say that Alphonse is about as different a character as you can get from Umbert. What do you think Alphonse says about the abortion conversation that Umbert doesn’t?
A. I’m not out to knock Umbert. But it seems to me that the strip is not designed to deal with the trauma and suffering that may surround an abortion. In 1973, Ms. magazine ran a death-scene photograph of Gerri Santoro, a woman who died in 1964 after attempting an illegal abortion in a motel. The image was horrific, which is part of the reason it became a symbol for the pro-choice movement. The photo—and the story behind it—manifested the suffering of women facing crisis pregnancies. That’s the world that Alphonse is bumping up against.
Q. What is your overall goal for this story? Alphonse doesn’t seem like a propaganda piece. What do you want people to take away from the story and what kind of an impact would you like it to have?
A. I didn’t set out to convey a message. I set out to answer a question: what if Umbert was real, and what if his mother tried to abort him? The story grew from there, and I think the fact that it is first and foremost a story is important. Story has a way of bypassing politics, because people receive stories differently. You may judge a character, but if the story is told well, you’re not likely to simply ignore him. I am hoping that Alphonse will work on people the way that art can do.
Q. What kind of reaction has “Alphonse” gotten so far? I’m especially curious about the reaction from the more conservative, pro-life audience. Have you been surprised by its reception?
A. So far, “Alphonse” has not received much of a reception, broadly speaking. What he has received is serious support from a few thoughtful people, some of whom aren’t even related to me. That’s kept me going with the project. I’m hoping that presenting the story in a single volume will help to increase its visibility.
Q. The illustrations in “Alphonse” are striking black-and-white with a lot of gray shades (which I think compliments the complexity of the subject matter very nicely). Could you tell us about how you worked with illustrator Chris Gugliotti to shape the pictures that tell the story so vividly and why you chose this particular style?
A. I was lucky to have a friend in the comics business who suggested checking out Chris Gugliotti’s work, and lucky that Chris was willing to come on board such an outré project. I saw in his work an ability to convey both horror and sweetness—perfect for a murderous, drug-addicted baby. I sent him descriptions of the characters and panel-by-panel descriptions of action and dialogue, and we collaborated from there. He made numerous improvements to the look of things, and it was thrilling to see his visual incarnation of my ideas.
Q. You’ve also mentioned that you’d like to publish the novel in color. What do you think color will bring to the story that the black, white and gray doesn’t?
A. When I started, black and white was all I could afford, so we went with that. I’m glad you think Chris used it to good effect—I think so, too. Yes, all those shades of gray get at something about the story’s morally complicated atmosphere. But Alphonse’s viscerality is even more important to me, and the color helps to make it visceral. This is a story full of flesh and blood; I want the reader to feel that.
Q. So far only the first two issues have been published. When will we be seeing the next and how can people help make that happen?
A. My goal now is to raise enough money to publish the story as a single 140-page volume and in full color, which will cost at least $40,000. It’s a lot, I know, but it goes to pay my artist and letterer and layout guy. They’re pros, and when you compare it to industry standards, it’s actually a bargain. If people want to help out with even a dollar donation (though more is also welcome), they can donate at my website, alphonsecomic.com. I’d love to find a patron who can underwrite the entire project, so that I can focus on production instead of fundraising. But every bit helps.