In a scene in Rachel Masilamani’s short comic titled “Who Does He Favor?,” a married couple discusses both the 2016 presidential campaign and the couple’s pregnancy, but the lines blur between the two topics.
As in the titular wordplay, one candidate’s chances of winning become a metaphor for a recessive gene in their unborn son. Against all odds, a son is born with blue eyes.
The 2017 comic showcases Masilamani’s penchant for making intuitive if unlikely connections between disparate events, and also for using her personal life as fodder for her art, even if some details are changed. (Her real-life son does not have blue eyes.)
In a culture where many still assume that comics are about superheroes or fantasy stories, Masilamani’s work is grounded in everyday life, even as it glides between the past and the present, reality and fantasy, autobiography and literary invention.
It’s an approach that has earned the Pittsburgh-based artist admirers nationally.
“Her work is really special,” said Meg Lemke, who lives in Brooklyn and edits the graphic-novel reviews at Publishers Weekly. “I don’t say that about that many artists.”
“Who Does He Favor?” is an installment in Nonpartum, Masilamani’s graphic novel in progress. It’s being serialized in Mutha, an online magazine “for Moms, Mothers + Muthas," which Lemke edits. Masilamani’s work has also been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books and online by PEN America.
Rob Clough, a comics critic based in North Carolina, has been a fan of Masilamani’s for two decades, ever since he read her early self-published collection RPM #1.
“I was really struck by the poetic qualities of her work, the way she captures quiet moments,” he said. “She did like slice-of-life-type strips, but also really conveying emotions, often painful ones, in a really interesting way.”
Masilamani grew up in New Jersey. She always liked children’s picture books, and as a teen, enjoyed the alternative comics in the Village Voice; Lynda Barry was a favorite. But it wasn’t until she attended Johns Hopkins University, where she studied art history and anthropology, that she tried to make comics of her own.
The turning point, she said, was Scott McCloud’s acclaimed 1993 book Understanding Comics.
“I had never thought to look critically at what I was doing when I read a comic, and then that made me really excited to try to do it on my own,” she said. “I thought, ‘Here I am, I’m a person who loves to tell stories and a person who loves to draw. Why didn’t I try this before?’”
“It became really exciting to me to realize that there was a way that you can build stories and really welcome people in a new way, different than standing and talking, different than just writing, and different than illustrating someone else’s words,” she said.
Masilamani moved to Pittsburgh about 12 years ago and works as a librarian at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Downtown branch. She lives with her husband and 2-year-old son on a quiet street in Regent Square. Her studio is a tiny second-floor room with the drafting table by the window. The room – its vintage silver-foil wallpaper kept intact – is packed with stacks of paper and a big flat file for storing old work. On one wall, a closet is full of the clothes her characters wear, which she models for herself in the mirror.
Though her work is probably more prominent outside of Pittsburgh than within it, she is well known in the local comics community.
Juan Fernandez, a local comics maker and educator, credited one of Masilamani’s self-published works for the inspiration to make comics himself.
“‘Singing Contest’ was this amazing, relatively wordless story about a young girl living at the American-Mexican border,” he said. “All the humans essentially don’t speak in words. All the word balloons are just filled with images. And there are these magical helpers, and they’re just animals from the desert and end up helping this girl in the story.”
“In a traditional sense, she draws expertly,” Fernandez said of Masilamani. “She works with color in a gorgeous way, but it is not about the drawing. It’s about the way that the drawings and the words interconnect. She’s able to achieve this lyrical prose that is just like utterly poetic in the combination of the images and the words.”
Her approach, he said, is experimental but accessible.
“Like really deep, complicated communication that’s she’s trying to do, and she’s able to do that and not lose you,” he said. “Rachel does a really amazing job at inviting people to share that space with her on the page.”
Clough also praises Masilamani’s ability to engage readers. He recalled an early story of hers.
“She did another strip about a teenage girl in this apartment complex who has body-image issues, but is crushing on this boy,” Clough said. Masilamani, he said, “has a real eye for detail that really builds up the verisimilitude of the characters. You really believe these are real people. You get invested in the people she writes about, and then when something horrible happens, it’s a real emotional gut-punch.”
Masilamani’s main ongoing project is Nonpartum. She started on it several years ago, when she wasn't planning to become a mother, and wanted to interrogate cultural attitudes toward women who make that decision. Subsequent installments explore how life intervened at age 39.
“Initially it was about not being pregnant and not having a child, then it was about some of the struggles I went through getting pregnant,” said Masilamani, who has two autoimmune disorders. “I had several miscarriages, and I cover that in the comic and talk about the way we think about pregnancy as a society. And I jump from my own personal experiences into broader experiences.”
One theme is our culture’s ambivalence surrounding motherhood – the lack of what she calls “social support” for mothers.
“It can be the end of your career,” she said. “It’s a decision that’s definitely going to impact your income. Could impact your health negatively, all of these things. I think that ambivalence is something a lot of women feel. That’s why they responded especially to my first few comics on this topic.”
Nonpartum stories published to date cover everything from problems with actually conceiving a child and her experiences in the health care system to concerns about how her dark-skinned child might be treated in our culture. Masilamani’s father is Indian, and her mother is German-American. In one panel, she imagines her infant son besieged by taunts like “You smell like curry” and “I guess your father couldn’t find any white women.”
Masilamani expects it might take another two years to finish Nonpartum. She’ll also need a publisher.
“I really want everybody to think about motherhood, and to think about how children are born, how we think about women, how we approach motherhood as a whole," she said. "And I think that the form that I'm using opens a whole topic up to a new set of people who might not have realized that they wanted to read about it and they wanted to think about it.”
Masilamani's July 12 reading at the Carnegie Library's main branch, in Oakland, includes projections of her artwork. The free reading is part of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' Made Local series.