In Times of Crisis, Comics Come to the Rescue

Melody Schreiber

Staff Writer

Melody Schreiber is at work on a nonfiction anthology of premature birth. As a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., she has reported from nearly every continent. Her articles, essays, and reviews have been published by The Washington Post, Wired, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, NPR, The Toast, Catapult, and others. She received her bachelor’s in English and linguistics at Georgetown University and her master’s in writing at the Johns Hopkins University. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @m_scribe.

Life is always stressful. But the first half of this year was particularly anxiety-inducing for me: I doubled my courseload in order to finish grad school, and my workload at the ol’ day job ramped up even more. At the end of April, I eagerly awaited the culmination of a big work project: A reporting trip to Nepal. We would lead 11 journalists through the country to report on health and development issues in one of the poorest countries in the world.

On my second day there, a magnitude-7.8 earthquake shook the world around me. The next few days made the previous months look like a yacht party. I was camping outside, barely sleeping, wearing the same clothes for days, not knowing when or if I would return home. I began reporting on the destruction I saw in order to make some kind of sense of it.

After a few days, I tentatively ventured back inside. I stayed in the ground-floor room of a new friend—the friends you make in times like those, you will remember always—but I still couldn’t relax. My nerves were keyed up and I couldn’t sleep; none of the science books I’d brought appealed to me. Images from my days flashed through my mind on loop: bodies loaded onto stretchers, remains being cremated, grief abundant and overflowing.

I opened my suitcase and found volume 2 of Ms. Marvel. I settled warily on the bed—a real bed!—and began reading.

Two scenes in those opening pages stayed with me. First, when Kamala speaks with her imam about her extracurricular activities as a teenage superhero, he advises: “[D]o what you are doing with as much honor and skill as you can.”

Ms Marvel art 1

The advice from sage dudes keeps coming; when Kamala meets Wolverine, he tells her, “The only power worth snot is the power to get up after you fall down.”

Ms Marvel art 2

As I read, I finally felt my eyelids droop, and I no longer jumped to my feet at every shudder and creak. I succumbed to an anxious sleep, but those lines kept me moving forward that night and in the days that followed. I had not chosen to experience this disaster, but as long as I was there, I would continue to bear witness—and do it as well as I knew how. And I would keep getting up when I fell down. (Advice that, during aftershocks, I took literally!)

When I finally returned home, I took a few days off to adjust to normal life. Now I had time—oodles of it—but I still couldn’t focus. I couldn’t calm my nerves enough to relax into a book.

Comics to the rescue once more. I finished Ms. Marvel and moved on to Alex + Ada, volume 1.

Alex + Ada art 1

When the story begins, Alex is depressed and lonely. His girlfriend left him months earlier with no warning. His feelings toward Ada are complex and contradictory. She is a force of change in his humdrum, depressed life, yet he’s also afraid for his—and her—safety. Every day, they walk a tightrope between joy and danger in simply living their lives.

Alex + Ada art 2

I loved the realistic art, the structured lines and muted colors, the simple but brilliant way of communicating, for instance, that a conversation is unspoken by encircling it in a thin blue line.

But beyond the craft, I loved the themes of Alex + Ada. The book introduces complex conversations around identity and marginalization and technology—questions about who we are and what makes us human.

I devoured the second volume as soon as I finished the first.

I found in these comics the escape that I craved. The stories quickly took me out of my own head, and when I returned, I felt calmer. More like myself.

I took the images from the comics and played them alongside the loop of the destruction and pain I’d witnessed in Nepal. By reading, I found a way to reconcile the jarring normalcy of my surroundings at home with the weight of what I felt.

I devoured these stories in order to keep going—to find a way to acknowledge how incredibly lucky I was to survive and to come home to all of my loved ones, to assuage my guilt and, yes, joy. And I found a path forward. A new way to keep on living.