Author and artist Celine Loup captures a fear many women share when it comes to childrearing in her comic, The Man Who Came Down the Attic Stairs. While struggling desperately with post-partem depression, the main character Emma asks, “But what if some women were never meant to be mothers, and it takes a baby to find out?”
In this black-and-white, 1950s-esque comic, pregnant Emma and her husband Thomas purchase an old home in the country. The panes shift from the empty house and idyllic countryside to an ostentatious therapist’s office, with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a portrait of Sigmund Freud, and giant glass walls. The therapist is saying, “Why then, Mrs. Flournoy, do you believe your husband sent you to see me?” Emma confesses, “I disgraced myself. … I’m a danger to my child.” We then step into her memory, seeing her awakened from sleep by her inconsolable baby, Roslin. We see Emma doing all the “right” things: walking the child, heating up her milk, feeding and changing her, yet nothing stops the wailing. In a moment of quiet, Emma is resting and her Thomas takes a box upstairs. She hears fantastic booms and clatters and goes to find what’s wrong, but he returns down the stairs, face void of emotion and says he tripped over some weights. Emma’s memories continue, and we see her carry out all the duties of a good wife: cooking breakfast, caring for the crying child, doing laundry, cleaning the house, curling her hair, and so on. When she tries to take the child out to do errands, she sees two put-together housewives, feels judged, and slaps one of them, which brings us back to the therapist’s office. It is there that we learn more about his surprising diagnosis of her. When she receives his edict, she returns home, deciding that it’s time to take matters into her own hands.
Sound almost plays its own character in this comic. We are slowly introduced to quiet country life, with the flutter of birds’ wings, the drip of a leaky faucet, and the ticking of a grandfather clock. As Emma recounts her early experiences with Roslin, a pervasive waahhh fills the panes. The letters intermittently flood the foreground and background, evoking claustrophobia and mounting tension. Even in moments when Roslin is not crying, noise leaks in, from the sounds of Thomas climbing up and down from the attic to the blub of boiling water and hiss of frying eggs. Loup makes you feel Emma’s struggle to keep going as the baby’s cries interrupt even stolen seconds of solace.
Not knowing why a child is crying or how to stop it can be terrifying and overwhelming. I imagine (as I am not a mother) it cannot help but erode a caretaker’s self-confidence when the crying does not seem to have an end. Many women experience crippling post-partum depression. The topic deserves public conversation, making this an important comic. In addition, the plot line of a woman’s mental stability called into question by men is not a new one, but depicting it in comics is a refreshing and needed angle. This story strongly evoked Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and the more recent After Birth by Elisa Albert for me. (Other reviews compare it to the works of Shirley Jackson and Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin.) I could write a whole paper analyzing this comic and its representation of gender roles, motherhood, and men’s perceptions of women’s mental health. (Luckily, I will spare you this.)
As I must stop somewhere, I will offer my conclusion: purchase this comic. The comic contains some sexual imagery and nudity, placing it on a level more appropriate for older teens and up. I see it being incredibly helpful as a way to support discussions of postpartum depression and women’s mental health. Feature it in book displays and add it to book lists. Read this comic and tell your friends.
The Man Who Came Down the Stairs
By Celine Loup
Archaia (Boom! Studios), 2019
Publisher Age Rating: M