Probably Nothing, Definitely Something
Matilda Tristram will be signing copies of her debut graphic novel from Viking, Probably Nothing, at the free Comica Comiket at The British Library, King’s Cross, London on Saturday August 16th, 11.00-11.30am in The British Library Bookshop, She will also take part in a Comica Conversation on ‘New Voices, New Directions’, followed by a signing, at The British Library Conference Centre on Sunday August 17th, 2.00-3.00pm (tickets £5/£4/£3).
Coping with either pregnancy or cancer would be enough for most people, but in February 2013, when Matilda Tristram was 18 weeks pregnant with her first child, she was diagnosed with bowel cancer. That month, she began keeping a diary in comics form of her experiences and feelings and made them public online to a growing global readership as Probably Nothing. Matilda was 31 at the time, a cartoonist, animator and co-writer for children’s television, notably on two series since 2011 of the gently fantastical Adventures of Abney and Teal on the BBC’s CBeebies channel.
Over the next nine months, she was constantly uncertain how it might end. “While I was writing Probably Nothing (Viking, 2014), I didn’t know if my treatment would be successful or not. I kept wishing I could just skip to the end and find out what happens, like I do with other books (I love spoilers).” Matilda made a doll of herself and placed it inside her partner Tom’s family cradle, “So if I die, I’ll still be there”.
Luckily, as her self-portrait with Tom and baby James on the cover of her debut graphic memoir reassures us, the chemo treatment and childbirth worked out for the best. Getting through it all to her mostly happy ending, however, required riding an emotional rollercoaster, from hopeful highs to fearful lows. All these, as well as her unpredictable reactions, opinions and mood-swings, Matilda has recorded in simplified, cartoons combined with funny and forthright commentaries and dialogues beneath. Her unusual page layouts of four rows of four same-sized panels may start with four pictures neatly in line at the top, but the varied lengths of text below them often push the lower rows of panels up or down, the effect almost symbolising cancer’s persistent disruption of order, which is temporarily restored as the words line up again across the foot of each page.
Successfully finishing her treatment and her book allowed Matilda to quit writing these comics and “start trying to ‘move on’, as they say.” A year later, returning to her diary to craft her new two-page comic for ArtReview (scroll to the bottom of this Article), Matilda admits, “I used to feel annoyed if people asked me ‘Is your comic therapy?’. It felt reductive of an art form that I love. Making it also didn’t change the situation or make me feel any less afraid. But when I made this new strip, I realised that when I’m drawing, even if it’s about cancer, I’m completely absorbed in the practice of it, and for a short time I stop worrying about everything cancer implies. I’ve decided it is definitely therapeutic to do, even if I still wouldn’t call it therapy.”
As a postscript, ‘Definitely Something’ examines how her life and emotions are still affected by cancer in ways she couldn’t have predicted. “I’m often not upset by things I would expect to be, like being asked directly about cancer. But then I will feel upset by something I hadn’t anticipated, like being asked if we’ll have more children. That time, I realised I’m worried enough about dying young and leaving one child without a mother, let alone two! Also the good things are touched by it. When life should just seem purely excellent, for example, when I’m sitting in the garden with Tom, watching James playing, I think, ‘I hope don’t die, I would hate to miss any of this’.” Matilda misses very little in her perceptions of others and, above all, of herself.
‘Definitely Something’, New Two-Page Strip for ArtReview Magazine
Click images below to enlarge.
This Article originally appeared in ArtReview magazine.