If you amble over to Jane Mai’s website, you will be met with the sight of an apparently dead Mickey Mouse flat on his back. So far, so dead representative childhood icon. The cheery, animated, bright blue background rains constant white tears, and on closer inspection Mickey’s open mouth reveals sharp, shark-like teeth. You can’t see his eyes. Mai’s Sunday in the Park with Boys comes wrapped in similarly deceptive packaging: that breezy title recalling summer, the smell of grass, the thrill of crushes. A cute girl in a sailor outfit adorns the cover against that same cheery bright blue background, complete with a little signature love heart. Like me, it may take you a few glances before you notice the large insect wrapped around her head, cutting off her vision. You can’t ‘see’ Jane and Jane can’t see you.
There are times when we all feel misunderstood, out-of-place, uncertain- for some it’s a passing feeling now and then, others less fortunate suffer from depression. For Jane, these instances occur with episodic regularity, creeping up on her slowly, depicted here by a sinister, crawling centipede-like insect that appears when the feeling starts up. It petrifies her into place as it wraps around her head, her whole body, cutting her off from all else and enveloping her completely. As a reader, you begin to dread the appearance of that foul thing; Mai’s effectiveness as a cartoonist making you feel similarly claustrophobic and closed in.
Mai’s art is simple, often sparse, her world bereft of people- people who don’t understand. She works at the help desk in a library, and there are signifiers as to her state of mind even unto her environment. ‘It’s been quiet and comfortable’ Mai declares as the cursive ‘Help’ on her desk offers a different opinion. She goes out to lunch, comes back, returns to her desk. ‘Help’ says the desk. She likes to reassure herself that she doesn’t mind the things she minds: ‘I like being alone, I like being by myself’ she repeats constantly as if she’s trying to convince herself. The opposite, you suspect, is true. She attempts to explain what she’s feeling to fleetingly to a bedfellow, but you can tell by his smile he doesn’t understand. The centipede crawls up over her and engulfs her again.
Despite this, Mai’s character/persona is difficult to grasp, stifled as she struggles not to be defined by this thing she has no control over. And the thing she has no control over she finds, in turn, is in itself hard to define and convey- ‘why don’t you understand?’ is another repeated plea. She’s not looking to be cured particularly or even after acceptance, she just wants reassurance that someone -at least one person- understands her and what she’s going through; that she isn’t alone and there isn’t something spectacularly wrong with her uniquely. It’s by no means an easy read, often harrowing, but Mai is a strong cartoonist, pinpointing the way in which her demon has taken over her: the dread of these episodes, the waiting, the compliance, and the quiet, desperate, frustration of the situation.