By Aneurin Wright
For want of a better phrase you could class this alongside what the Bookseller famously called “misery lit“, and what Waterstones started racking as “painful lives“. But in comics form, we tend to use the phrase “powerful graphic memoir” and what there’s been so far has been of a really high standard, powerful works such as Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales, Nicola Streeton’s Billy, Me and You, Brick’s Depresso, and Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles all come immediately to mind.
Things To Do In A Retirement Home is part of this sub-genre, and it’s absolutely an emotive, tender, well drawn, and above all else a very personal memoir, of a son’s chance to reconnect with his dying father in their final months together.
Wright makes no attempt to disguise the autobiographical nature of this story, despite portraying himself as a huge blue minotaur and his father as a bright blue rhino, and just knowing how intensely personal this is draws you into the emotional core of the tale.
(Aneurin and his dad Neil, the minotaur and the rhino, from Things To Do In A Retirement Home Trailer Park by Aneurin Wright)
Retirement Home is the tale of Neil and Aneurin, father and son, disconnected and dysfunctional. But the father is dying, the son cast in a new role as the primary carer, and it’s this forced confinement, this uncomfortable proximity for the last months of the old man’s life that changes things
We watch as the pair fight, clash, argue, moan, and whinge about each other, yet we also get to watch them draw closer, united by the old man’s oncoming death, and the need on both sides to reach some form of forgiveness.
(As the doc says; there are things to be done, things to be put in order, and it’s this settling of account that forms the heart of the book.)
Wright shifts between care giving to flights of fancy – and these do have a tendency to be a little too heavy handed, and sadly there are far too many of them through the book.
The very best parts of Retirement Home come from the day to day existence of father and son, where Wright mixes the mundane routine of caring with the devastating emotional impact of watching someone die slowly before your eyes.
And in this mundanity, we also find humour, a gallows humour perhaps, but the prickly nature of Wright’s father lends itself so well to comedic lines:
(One of the (many) unpleasant side-effects of the drugs his dad was taking…. A very early indication of the shifting tones Wright is trying for in Retirement Home)
Between the moments in the now, are older memories; darker times of growing up, where the cranky, vulnerable, terminally ill old man becomes younger, angrier, violent, too driven, too fond of a drink, and always surrounded by smoke. It’s wrecked his life, and the flashbacks point to a marriage destroyed through the man’s actions and the paternal bonds shattered through the same.
(A younger Neil, working, drinking, smoking, and so angry… a marriage destroyed.)
Artistically it’s impressive as hell, and his decision to use a limited colour palette adds so much, the cobalt blues, deep oranges and reds, and gray, lots of gray.
But something with Retirement Home just didn’t work for me. I was moved by it certainly, and technically, particularly in the everyday care scenes, Wright taps into powerful themes, but it never made me weep, and something like this should have done. I’m naturally a sentimental sort, tearing up at the slightest thing. And I can certainly empathise with the son being drawn back into the life of his dad. With me it’s a slow reintroduction initiated by my mom’s alzheimers, and supporting dad as we watch a previously strong, willful woman dissolve into a shambling shell.
So perhaps the fact I didn’t dissolve blubbering here tells you that, although Retirement Home is powerful, frank, honest and assured, there’s something lacking. And dammit, I just can’t quite put my finger on it.
As it is Retirement Home works as a graphic memoir, and it’s certainly an impressive one, but the flaws are there, and chief amongst them is my lack of tears.