The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz is one of my favorite “slice of life” comics, and it is one I’ve taught several times in my course on comics. A memoir in three parts, The Infinite Wait and Other Stories is memorable for the reader because of Wertz’s strong voice as presented in two ways: through the drawn character we see — the “Julia” we watch living through the events recounted — and through the voice of the narrator, a future Wertz we “hear” but do not see, as she looks back and comments on the Julia in each panel as she lives and reacts in the moment. This layering effect is best suited to comics as an art form, in my opinion, though I’ve rarely seen someone use this technique so effectively in a memoir graphic novel.
Wertz’s voice is smart and funny, and she combines those into a searing wit that, though it is often aimed at others, is just as often employed as self-deprecating humor. Her subjects are serious and her narrator’s seeming ability to gain emotional distance from these problems through the “Julia” portrayed in the book actually heightens the emotional intensity while preventing it from being sappy in any way. (She deals in her book with the problem of expectations when people meet her and expect her to be identical with the “Julia” portrayed).
This book has three stories, and two of them deal with serious subjects: The first, “Industry,” is a chronicle of her jobs throughout life (and it deals with her alcoholism, too). The second story, “The Infinite Wait,” tells about her diagnosis with a chronic auto-immune disease. Both of these stories are emotionally powerful, but written by and for those skeptical of emotional intensity and suspicious of even the smallest hint of melodrama or sentimentality. As a result, they effectively convey the emotions of which the narrator and characters are wary.
The third story, “A Strange and Curious Place,” is on a lighter, but equally important, topic: a celebration of reading. Do I really need to say more about this third story to entice a book-lover to want to read it? Some of my favorite pages are when she shows us her visits to the library as a child, and I want to see for myself her childhood home library in the attic that exists somewhere in the past. Of course she shows it to us, but she makes me want to physically walk into that room. But, it probably wouldn’t look right to me even if I could, because her art captures both a physical place and psychological point in time.
Her drawings throughout are childlike in the way that the Peanuts characters are childlike stylistically (an influence she has mentioned). The decision to use this style is perfect for such serious content because it makes the harsh realities portrayed palatable enough that we can follow Wertz without getting hit too hard in the gut for enjoyment, which is what would happen with a more realistic portrayal of the story.
I have to warn readers that “Julia” is crass (as are many of the other characters presented in the comic), but it bothers me not in the least. In fact, it’s part of why I like her stories; it’s part of what makes her books great. However, if you are offended by very frank references to sex, you will be offended by this book. If you are a college student right now, it’s not likely to shock or bother you much, particularly if you like most movies aimed at a young adult demographic. Like me, you will probably find this aspect of the book a plus and not a minus.
I will end my review on a personal note, because The Infinite Wait and Other Stories is a personal story told to connect with the reader on an intimate level, and it achieves that connection. The book makes a person want to sit and talk to the author, because it’s the type of book that makes you feel like you know the author, when, in fact, you don’t know the author any more than you really know the author of any book. But, her ability to make the reader feel this way is an essential quality to mention in describing why this graphic novel is so effective: It seems to be written just for you.
So, these are the reasons why I loved the book personally: My favorite section of the memoir is when Wertz shows her discovery of comics as a young adult in the midst of pain and depression; I, too, discovered comics in a similar way when, at the age of thirty-three, I was suffering from severe chronic pain and severe depression (however, I did not have a chronic physical disease). Like Wertz, I was overwhelmed by the genius and possibilities of comics as an art form: Sequential art, as Eisner calls comics, is endlessly awe-inspiring on an aesthetic and intellectual level, and it is one of the greatest art forms of all time.* I also am moved by Wertz’s book because my fourteen-year-old daughter has a chronic illness, and watching Wertz go through her diagnosis and the effects of the disease, struck home again on a very personal level. And obviously the third story about the pleasures of reading was brilliant to me: I’m an English professor! Of course I’m gonna to love this story!
The Infinite Wait and Other Stories is fantastic and almost every student I’ve had read it has loved it. Just this week, in fact, I had a student request more of her books (so today I requested that the college library order earlier titles by her). I wish I could put this book in the hands of every young adult suffering from chronic disease. I think it would be a welcomed balm in the most surprising of ways. And the fact that I share Wertz’s experience of discovering comics through pain and suffering makes me want to put great comic books in every hospital for others to discover when they most need them. If I were a rich man, I would do just that. And the first book I would put in that library would be The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz.
*Will Eisner points out what still bothers me almost forty years after he wrote it: That though it’s been around longer as an art form than film, “sequential art” is still not taken as seriously as film. Nor is sequential art appreciated in all its various genres by a large and diverse demographic the way film is. I can’t believe that people don’t read comics as much as or more than they watch films! However, I know our history well enough to understand why, and it saddens me that this disdainful attitude towards comics is the long-lasting impact of a Jewish-American art form being censored for over twenty-five years, starting right after comics were burned in bonfires across the United States. In other words, we were burning Jewish-American literature in our streets less than ten years after the end of World War II, and this art form was largely a product of immigrants who were denied work at other, more “respectable” publishers, because of anti-Semitism. (Excuse the long footnote, but this is U.S. history that I feel more people should know about, and I will continue to repeat it every chance I get!)