Guest review by Hannah Marie Williams, student in the “Comics Narratives: Illness, Disability, & Recovery” course, Art Therapy Program, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Sugar Baby,” by Nomi Kane, is a personal narrative comic about her experience getting diagnosed with diabetes, and a series of childhood experiences after. What I really appreciated about this particular story was the stories that did not have to do with disability directly, like the section “Zewish,” and the over-arching narrative of her wanting a dog. Too often in disability narratives, I feel as if the parts of the subject’s life that don’t deal with the disability itself are trimmed away or cut out, which I think is really detrimental into understanding the person as a whole. A disabled person is more than just disabled, so a disabled person’s story should be more than just about the disability.
At the same time, the parts that were about the diabetes in of itself rang very true. While I cannot pretend to have grown up with diabetes, and won’t pretend that our experiences were the same, as someone who grew up with congenital heart defects, there was a little overlap in how it could be treated. The “But diabetics ARE fat. That’s why they’re diabetic.” line in particular mirrored things said to me in my childhood about CHD and really made the book seem all the more authentic.
Other aspects of chronic disease, especially the experience of having chronic illness as a child also felt startlingly accurate. Begging with the phlebotomist to wait to be poked, only to realize they’ve already stuck you, the feeling pre-diagnoses of being extremely sick every day and your parents claiming to believe you but still mentioning the fact that they have a job, that you can’t be sick all the time, sort of implying they don’t believe you as much as they say they do, and the ridiculous ways that doctors attempt to try and make unpleasant medical treatments child friendly and “fun” were all really reminiscent of my own childhood, which helped me to warm up both to the book, and to Nomi herself. Sugar Baby herself is a terrifying example of the last point, (who would want a doll like that?) but I honestly found the Pink Panther chart the most relatable, just because I’d seen so many things exactly like that during my own hospital experiences, the example coming to my head immediately being the peak-flow meters with little animals to reach in the trees instead of notches to measure your breath. In simply redrawing the poster with herself as the subject instead of the Pink Panther, she was really able to show how weirdly condescending those kinds of medical tools can be, even if they are meant to be child-friendly and well-meaning.
All in all, I think the book is very successful, and is certainly something that I would recommend to other people who have been disabled or chronically ill since childhood, even if the disability wasn’t specifically diabetes. There’s enough to be able to relate to, even if you can’t relate to the specific disabilities, and I think it’s also good for caretakers and parents to read narratives like this as well, to really understand what the person in their care might be going through.
From The Comics Journal review: “Kane’s comics are a one-woman charm offensive. Her line is deliciously clear (and in fact could stand to add some thickening) and this story of her experiences with childhood diabetes is part PSA, part family story. The way she uses vignettes to drive her narrative allow her to jump around in time and focus on key events and how they made her feel, and the result is an appealing package that nonetheless hints that her best work is ahead of her.”