Review by Megan Sinclair
“So this was grief. A thing with a life of its own – controlling and distorting our understanding of the world.”
Nicola Streeten’s Billy, Me and You is an autobiographical story of her son Billy’s sudden death, and how she and her husband came to terms with the loss. As the title suggests, the graphic novel is about her and her son but the “you” is both her husband John and the readers whom through the narrative become intertwined into the very raw and intimate world of Streeten’s grief. However, what makes Streeten’s story so memorable is not the sad moments of heartache and pain, but the unusual humour and absurdity of the grieving process itself. Although centred around a personal loss, the graphic novel challenges the stigma of mourning and society’s response to it. A wonderful example is in the opening pages where Streeten gives marks out of ten for peoples’ reactions to the death, giving “sorry” a 10/10 and “I can imagine what you’re going through” a -20/10.
The narrative is rendered even more effective by Streeten’s simplistic artwork. Her child-like sketches evoke memories of Billy and feel handmade, as if we are reading the journal she began to create in the aftermath of the death and not a mass-produced novel. In addition, the story is scattered with photographic scans of Billy’s possessions, bringing the memory of their son to the forefront of the narrative. We are taken on a journey from grief to recovery, shown the difficulties of dealing with loss and the obstacles we must overcome to begin to heal. The graphic novel questions identity and society’s perceptions of grief, and at one point Streeten even questions her role as a parent, comparing an intact vase to a broken one and asking “which is normal?”
The graphic novel feels cathartic, but Streeten insists that the process of creation was not. Writing over a decade after Billy’s death she notes the catharsis occurred at the time. Too overcome with grief, Streeten hid her notes and journals, only looking at them years later. The graphic novel highlights the therapeutic power the medium can have, as the creator goes from not being able to look at her own work to sharing it. Billy, Me and You may not always be a comfortable read, but it is an important one, demonstrating the way comics can be used to challenge social problems and showing the power of communication. Streeten’s work is packed with evocative messages, but at the heart is the belief that “grief is to be shared,” and for us to do so properly we must try to understand it and relate to it.