After well over a year with no success, newlyweds Ben and Eliza are ecstatic to finally get pregnant, but they soon discover that preparing for a new baby involves a lot more than just decorating the nursery and stocking up on diapers.
Five Pounds & Screaming chronicles the day-to-day experiences of a young couple as they navigate the stress and joy, hormones and health concerns, shower gifts and sleep deprivation that fill the months between the moment they learn they’re expecting and their daughter’s first birthday.
A proud father himself, graphic designer and first-time long-form comicker Williams clearly draws from personal experience in this self-published graphic novel as he documents both the minutia and the life-altering upheaval that come with bringing a new person into the world. In fact, the book feels more like memoir than fiction, with Ben sharing his creator’s occupation, small-town Wisconsin home, and family names (Ben’s last name is Brook and he and Eliza name their daughter Willow Rose, after Williams’s daughter Briar Rose). Even without those surface commonalities, however, the story has an appealing level of intimate detail (Eliza’s insecurity, Ben’s litter box grumbles, the tension-diffusing power of bubbles) that feels like it could only come from someone who has been there.
The artwork echoes that sense of personal reality with a diverse cast of characters (perhaps based on the author’s friends and family?) and a wide variety of settings for their conversations: homes, rooftops, stores, parking lots, ball fields, funerals, car interiors. Background details, like the comics-themed clutter of Ben’s cubical at work or the rustic décor of his family home, further anchor those places in the real world.
Charmingly honest and enlightening, the book is also somewhat hampered by awkward formatting, a few narrative issues, and uneven art.
The story is told in chronological snippets of varying length, but the chapters have no standardized page breaks to help indicate transitions between topics, so a new chapter title may suddenly appear in the middle of a page or isolated at the bottom of a two-page spread, where the reader nearly misses it, causing the story to read as though it should have been presented as one long scroll instead of a book. The chapters themselves skip anything from a few days to many months ahead and occasionally bring up issues, such as the couple’s unhappiness with renting or their difficulty with breast feeding, that are never mentioned again, though they appear eventually to have been overcome. If this were a straight memoir those loose threads would be easier to overlook, but the artistic license of semi-fiction leaves the reader expecting a slightly neater narrative.
Though generally an appropriately quirky fit, the art can also be distractingly inconsistent. Several attempts to add facial detail to characters or add texture and pattern to clothes and furniture go a bit awry and make for some unintentionally creepy faces, dirty carpets, and hairy walls and trousers. Eyes can be solid white or dark, have irises and pupils or not, even on the same characters, and not always for discernible reasons. To create visual drama or depth, Williams uses inky shadows in some images, partial hatching in others, and elsewhere dispenses with shading all together. Most of the panels display a simple cartoonish style, while others with no greater story significance look as though they’ve been drawn from photographic references. Taken individually, the different styles and techniques employed here could tell the story successfully; but randomly thrown together as they are, they leave the book without a unifying artistic stamp.
Content-wise, the subject may appeal more to adults who can relate than to your average teen, but the latter shouldn’t encounter any language, sex, or nudity issues beyond a few clearly topical panels about breast-pumps and nursing.
It’s important to keep in mind that this is a self-published work without the benefit of a professional editor. While it may not be an example of great graphic literature, it’s still an engaging, funny, open-hearted look at the worry and wonder of becoming a parent for the first time, and though Williams may need some polish and direction, he has a solid foundation to build on.
Five Pounds & Screaming
by Shawn Brook Williams