Keiler Roberts sits in front of her laundry machine, crying. It’s not the first time she’s cried on the floor, and when her daughter finds her, she recognizes an emergency situation. “Oh no, Mommy! 9-1-1!” Xia shouts as she rushes to her mother’s lap, absorbing the tears with her blankie.
This is one of the many illustrations of domestic melancholy and tenderness in Roberts’s My Begging Chart, a new collection of autobiographical comics from Drawn & Quarterly. Roberts is blunt about the highs and lows of everyday life, imbuing moments of vulnerability with dry humor thanks to her sparse art style and understated storytelling.
Raised in rural Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Roberts didn’t have much access to the art world as a child, but a preschool visit to her teacher’s brother’s art studio instilled an early fascination with painting. “Growing up, there was no model of a professional artist,” says Roberts. “It was just art teachers, so I figured I would be a high school art teacher.”
Roberts pursued education at University of Wisconsin in Madison before switching to a BFA that allowed her to devote more time to painting. She continued down that path with a master’s degree from Northwestern University, and the Evanston-based artist has been teaching ever since, currently at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.
“Keiler has always nurtured a humble balance between curiosity and aspiration,” says Michelle Grabner, one of Roberts’s former professors at UWM and her current colleague at SAIC. “What made her one of my favorite undergraduates are the same qualities that make her an inspiring and effective teacher in the classroom now.”
In 2009, Roberts took a comics course at DePaul University taught by cartoonist Aaron Renier, who was intimidated to have another professor as a student. “She was fully formed,” says Renier. “Part of me thinks she didn’t even need to take my class. She used the class as an excuse to start.” Roberts created the first issue of her self-published comic, Powdered Milk, at DePaul.
When it came to developing her aesthetic as a cartoonist, Roberts quickly realized she was most comfortable with the basics: black-and-white comics drawn with Micron pen on Bristol board. “There’s nothing luxurious or sensual about my drawing style or materials,” says Roberts. “What is the most direct way to draw something if you’re just trying to describe it clearly and fast? I’m not thinking about how to make this more beautiful or look more like ‘art.’”
Roberts met Annie Koyama of Koyama Press at the first Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) in 2012, and while Roberts didn’t have much work to display, her mini-comics made an impression on the Toronto-based small-press publisher.
“Keiler’s outlook on life appealed to me,” says Koyama. “She and I share chronic conditions but you still have to go about your day dealing with the endless mundane tasks. Moreso if you have a child.”
Koyama reached out to Roberts and went on to publish three of her books—Sunburning, Chlorine Gardens, and Rat Time—providing both creative freedom and editorial support to help Roberts develop her voice. In those titles, Roberts opened up about her miscarriage, living with bipolar disorder, and being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2017. “In my comics, some of the events aren’t pleasant but they’re all things I want to remember and think about again,” says Roberts.
While recognizing the value of sharing her experiences as someone living with these medical conditions, Roberts lingers on them less and less as time passes, accepting them as another aspect of her daily circumstances. “It’s important for people to know that MS isn’t always extreme, and same thing with bipolar. You can live with these things. It’s just a factor of my life. It doesn’t always have to be the theme and the content.”
“Keiler’s fascination with the mundane details of the quotidian shares similarities with her auto-bio peers such as Gabrielle Bell and John Porcellino,” says Drawn & Quarterly publisher Peggy Burns, referencing two of Roberts’s biggest influences. “But what makes her perspective unique is how she reflects in the comics the remove she has from her life, there’s a fascinating disjointed distance.”
“She’s not going for a laugh,” says Renier. “She just puts out the situation and you laugh because it’s true to your own life.”
Most of those situations involve Roberts and her ten-year-old daughter, who is fully aware of her role in her mother’s work. “She has always read my books, she has always had copies of them in her bedroom,” Roberts says. “She reads every e-mail, every text. She knows way too much. She’s looking over my shoulder when I’m journaling.”
“She’s gotten so gung ho that we’ll be having conversations and she’ll go, ‘Make that into a comic!’ She’s proud of the fact that she’s funny enough to have all these punchlines.” And Roberts is proud, too. “I don’t care what your report card says. You made me laugh today. Good.”
In My Begging Chart, Xia’s enthusiasm for play feeds her mother’s spirit, keeping the tone of the book light and fun, even as it tackles the early days of the pandemic. Extended screen time became the norm, and Roberts wanted to depict it in a peaceful way to counter growing fears about screens’ negative impact.
“[Nintendo Switch] saved our lives. We just happened to get it for [Xia’s] birthday, and then Animal Crossing came out right when the pandemic started. It’s like when people are really averse to going on Prozac but it could make their whole life so much better.”
“I love how ‘wrong’ Keiler’s humor can be about being a mother,” says Burns. “It’s so real, so honest. There’s no guilt involved, just a flawed and loving humanity.”
“I try to think about the areas of my life where there is no inherent significance as just as significant as the things we put all this meaning on: holidays and milestones,” Roberts says. She views the current wave of post-pandemic firsts as a source of stress, adding unnecessary importance to activities that were normal not so long ago.
“I don’t want more emotional intensity. I’m looking for those things I can handle because there’s not so much pressure.” v