You can go find all the horror comics currently being published and line them up with The Vagabond Valise and probably not find one that is anywhere equal in the level of disturbance lobbed at the reader by Quebecois cartoonist Siris. Not that this book is a horror comic at all. Instead, it’s an autobiography that folds familial dysfunction, foster care, bullying, alcoholism, disease, death, abuse, and plenty more leaks from the cesspool of human experience with a slapstick style that doesn’t lighten it so much as add to the emotional pressure weighing down your heart as you read it.
Which is to say, it’s all pretty effective. In the form of Chick-O, a little kid with a chicken head, Siris traces his life from before birth to early adulthood, and it unfolds tragedy after tragedy, each one more likely to make you fall apart than the last. It’s like some horrible Dickensian nightmare that takes place in the 1960s and 1970s, when a boy with no expectations, let alone any great ones, is careening toward some ugly end that makes you wonder if you really want to see what happens at the end of the book. But then you remember — it’s an autobiography. Chick-O WROTE the book. It’s all going to be okay. Somewhat, anyhow.
It starts out badly, with alcoholic Renzo somehow procuring a job long enough to woo co-worker Luce. He’s bad news, any reader could tell her, but Luce goes along with his lines and ends up in misery, married to the bum, poverty-stricken, and trying to care for their five kids, the youngest of which is Chick-O.
All five children are taken away and, still a baby, Chick-O begins an odyssey that takes him through depressing orphanages — though he gets to be with his sisters for a while in one of them — and several terrible foster situations featuring gruesome families that are mainly in it for the money, almost refusing to show much humanity towards Chick-O. And the kids are particularly awful, accentuated by the inevitable bullies at the schools Chick-O attends, using their radar to pick out life’s victims and make everything worse for them.
Thankfully for Chick-O, he has one soothing constant amidst the scarring chaos — his drawings. He particularly likes drawing comics, and as the memoir progresses, so does his interest in the form. It’s funny, the things that can save your life. Amidst traumatic childhoods dominated by insecurity, there is safety in self-expression, hope in the forms it can take. And the lesson is that perseverance with the thing you love can often lead you to the people who will understand you.
Or, better yet, you work with the tools you have, and hopefully one of those tools is stamina.
Given that simple truth, what starts out as a comic that is likely to give you PTSD ends up as one that will much more likely inspire you, maybe even settle you. The story of Chick-O is one of across-the-board system failures that conspire to destroy lives. From the state level to the family level, nothing works like it is supposed to and Chick-O is left to fend for himself.
His embrace of comics is not the intuitive one most people would point to as a way out of the nightmare, and it’s honestly not the only thing that pulls him out of it. Comics is more of a symbol for recognizing yourself, understanding what it is you do and what it is you want done with what you do and what you discern that you have to do to make things happen. In some ways, the most helpful solution Chick-O encounters is the one that comes naturally — age, maturity — and that helps him with the opportunity to find his tribe. Comics helps, too. You work with the tools you have. If you understand what that means precisely, I’m pretty sure you’ll recognize that it describes the human condition.