Chicken Rising: a graphic novel about growing up in Saint John

Written by RM Vaughan on May 13, 2019

D. Boyd’s debut graphic memoir, Chicken Rising (Conundrum Press) is causing a joyful stir in the graphic novel/comics world.

Set in west Saint John in the 1970s, Chicken Rising depicts a childhood fraught with tension and misunderstandings, but also one full of wonder and formative delights. As visually accomplished as it is emotionally blunt, Chicken Rising is unafraid to present its often tough subject matter with gorgeous, layered illustration. As a reviewer for the Montreal Review of Books put it “I found it hard to believe that this is Boyd’s first book.”

D. Boyd was born and raised in Saint John, where we first met over 30 years ago. After working for years in film, design, and book layout, while always drawing comics and making zines, Boyd turned to the graphic novel genre for the first time in her early 50s. And now she has a hit on her hands.

I met with Boyd in her home in Montreal to discuss her book and the 1970s New Brunswick it presents – a New Brunswick both of us know very well. (Full disclosure: I am thanked in the book, but I had nothing to do with its creation).

RM Vaughan (RMV): What prompted you to write Chicken Rising?

D. Boyd (DB): It really boiled down to being an only child with no children, and being very nostalgic, and realizing that everything I remember might vanish with me when I die. I wanted to make a record, a testament.

My childhood was unusual. My parents were a lot older than parents were at the time. They had me in their 40s, which was considered strange at the time,, as were single child families. There was always a family joke that we had two generation gaps: my parents were young during WWII, but the kids I grew up with had young adult parents. Those kids seemed to me to have so many more freedoms than I had. My parents were very strict and old-fashioned. But at the same time, my mother was a very contradictory person. I had freedoms other kids didn’t have.

RMW: We carry an idea in New Brunswick that our culture is more old-fashioned than the rest of Canada, but it’s a misreading. We’re not conservative, we’re discreet. We are more concerned with what other people will see than what happens in private. And that specific anxiety is all over your book.

DB: There was a strong rule in my family that you must never, never ever air your dirty laundry.

RMW: Which you just did with your book.

DB: Ha! I did! But I’ve tried to be fair and not just turn it into a “Mommy Dearest”. The kind of people my parents were was very much informed by their own pasts.

RMV: The way elementary school is depicted in Chicken Rising is alarmingly accurate. I was terrified of my teachers and the daily physical violence in the school system, and what it did to kids who were outsiders.

DB: Oh, gosh, yeah. I developed very early. I had breasts when the other girls were flat chested. That made me the brunt of a lot of negative attention. There was no respect for boundaries or the physical bodies of children. Everything was just dismissed in a casual way. And I was afraid of my teachers too. Very few of them were nice or helpful. I can only think of two teachers that tried to make me feel good about my work. The education system in New Brunswick has changed so much!

RMV: When we were young adults, the idea that New Brunswick could produce anything of cultural importance, never mind export that material, was, well, unbelievable. We were always told that to be somebody, you had to leave. That defeatism is gone, and good riddance.

DB: Yes, but what a young adult in New Brunswick today will see in my book that is still an important part of our culture is the casual kindness that is everyday, normal, in New Brunswick. Obviously, if you’re an emerging artist in NB now, you had a very different upbringing in a very different environment, but that friendliness and ease between strangers is still there.

On the other hand, I’m going to Saint John for a big comics/graphic novel conference! Unimaginable when I was young. So, we are keeping the good parts of our culture and moving forward. New Brunswick is so much more vibrant now, connected to the world. But there is still something about New Brunswick that resists full “connection”, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, because it means there is still plenty of space for everybody. We’re not overgrown or too built up, like Toronto or Vancouver. We’re not as rat-racy.

RMV: How would you describe your drawing style?

DB: One reviewer described it as “cartoony and grotesque,” which I found funny. It is “cute,” but it looks that way in order to disarm the reader. The book is a combination of accessible drawing and hard stories, to create a balance with the tough parts of my childhood.

RMV: You and I had very similar childhoods. My parents were older, there was a family business, and I grew up in rural and then suburban places. But I don’t have the same type of nostalgia that you do, or that your book is enlivened by. What is the value of nostalgia for an artist?

DB: There is always value in looking at the past, your own or any other. We can’t progress until we come to terms with our past. It’s not that back then things were all bad and now things are all good, not that simple. The book is about the things you have to learn, and overcome, to become who you are. You have to embrace it all. To accept who you are now, you have to accept how you became who you are. That’s true for provinces and people.

RM Vaughan is the author of 11 books and writes about art and culture for a wide variety of national and international publications.

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