'Not Funny Ha-Ha': Leah Hayes' graphic novel about abortion goes beyond politics

At this point, it should come as no surprise that the comics format can tackle serious matters. Comics have been employed for memoirs about the Holocaust and journalistic reportages on the Middle East. They've even been used in legal settings. In 2012, a lawyer involved in a legal case between Amazon and various book publishers submitted an amicus brief in the form of a comic.

Now artist Leah Hayes is employing the form to take on a socially and politically charged topic: abortion.

This is not the first time someone has addressed the issue in a comic. Garry Trudeau, for example, has taken on abortion in his "Doonesbury" strip. But Hayes's book serves a very different purpose. "Not Funny Ha-Ha," as the book is titled, is a handbook geared at women who are about to undergo the procedure. (Its full name is "Not Funny Ha-Ha: A Handbook for Something Hard.") 

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Hayes has an earlier graphic novel, the somewhat fantastical short story collection "Funeral of the Heart," which was published in 2008. "Funny Ha-Ha" couldn't be more different. 

In simple, sketch-style drawings, she tells the story of two characters, Lisa and Mary, who are getting abortions. She takes the reader, step by step, through different aspects of the procedure, covering everything from the confused emotional feelings that can accompany the decision to abort, to what a woman might expect at the doctor's office before, after and during an abortion. (For the record: this is a graphic novel, but it isn't graphic — Hayes does not show the procedure.)

The Los Angeles artist is currently touring the country doing signings for the book, which was released by Fantagraphics early this month. She took time to chat with me from a roadway somewhere in the Midwest to discuss how she arrived at such a hot topic and the type of reaction the book has gotten among the various factions in the abortion debate — which was blasted by anti-abortion websites before its release. 

"Not Funny Ha-Ha" doesn't have a conventional story line, with a beginning, middle and end. Instead, it's a very straightforward handbook. Why set it up that way?

When I set out to write this, I felt like there were a lot of events between deciding to have an abortion and the procedure itself — that this was an opportunity to show some of those practical things. This part generally doesn't enter into the dialogue about abortion. There is so much talk about the decision itself and the aftermath. But I was thinking, what about the in-between? What does it feel like to make the phone call to the clinic? What is it like to call a parent or a friend? Nothing addressed that.

With [an abortion], there is both waiting and the opposite of waiting. There is the need to do things very quickly. But you’re dealing with this very huge thing. I wanted to have some sort of literature that wasn’t a pamphlet. The vision I had as I was writing it, I was picturing a girl going through this procedure, thinking 'What would she want to read?' So it was an attempt to write something comforting, but also something that was helpful.

Why use comics? What does the form add to this kind of information?

Growing up appreciating illustration and growing up loving comics in general, I've always gravitated toward comics and graphic novels that tackled big issues. I love Art Spiegelman’s "Maus" and [Marjane Satrapi's] "Persepolis." I was always interested in comics that show larger, real subjects — and some really dark subjects. I have been affected, sometimes even more so, by graphic novels that tackle really hard issues. It sticks in my mind to have a visual along with text. It’s a pretty effective way to tell stories, especially for younger people.

The book is rendered in a monochromatic palette of sunny yellows, with occasional splashes of orange. How did you go about choosing the visual aspects of this story? 

How it looks was very deliberate. I wanted it to be a gender-neutral color. I wanted it to be a bright color. I really want this book to be for women and men and family members and friends. I want this to be something that people buy for themselves but also for someone going through an abortion. And I wanted it to be something people wouldn’t be embarrassed to buy. So, a bright yellow book was something I had in mind.

I also wanted it to feel homegrown. I wanted it to be sketchy. I wanted it to have handwriting so that it would make things feel less pamphlet-y. Everything about it, I wanted it to feel personal. I wanted it to feel like a friend or a family member was putting a hand on your shoulder saying, "It's OK."

In terms of [rendering] the procedure itself, I was drawing on experiences that I’d talked about with different women, and my own experiences. So I was thinking about including visual tidbits you might not think about.  There's a scene in a waiting room with these quietly crying women, some women are smiling, some are chatting and they're playing some ridiculous movie on the screen. They're playing "Shrek." These are details that you wouldn't think about but that you can't un-see in your mind. I was trying to include those things, too.

What inspired the book?

That’s something a lot of people ask. Obviously, I have a lot of feelings and thoughts about this subject for a lot of reasons — some personal. But some because they come from passionate feelings about abortion and women’s rights. This was something I had a lot to say about.

As I try to say in the book, abortion can seem very fast and, technically, the procedure can be very quick and girls can bounce back into work or school. But I think the event of having an abortion can really affect you in numerous ways — sometimes a week later, sometimes ten years later. Sometimes it will crop up and you’ll feel sad. I wanted to write about that.

Your book steers clear of discussing the politics of abortion, at a time when access to abortion is being limited in many states. But was there a political aspect in doing a book that dealt with such a hot-button topic?

It's an upsetting time for abortion rights and women's rights. We're not in a very different place than we were 20, 30 or 40 years ago. So that's upsetting. But I didn't write this because of the things that are going on. I'm glad to have a voice in it, and if I can empower women, that is wonderful. And I'm glad I can be adding to the conversation at this time in history. I have had conversations with people who very badly want me to say whether I think abortion is wrong or it's good and that’s a conversation I'd have over dinner, but it’s not what this book is about.

The seed of this started over a year ago. And it wasn't spurred by the political atmosphere. I just wanted to sneak in with one angle that maybe wasn't shown in an artistic way very much or at all — and that is the procedure. When you decide to have an abortion none of the political stuff matters, in a way. You have to go forward and deal with your own emotional journey. 

The book covers both the medical and psychological aspects of abortion. What kind of research did you do for the project? 

I had a lot of conversations with women and men of all ages. I had my own experiences in my mind. I did a lot of research on the medical aspects. I spoke to two wonderful gynecologists throughout the making of the book. They were just wonderful, so helpful. And I did a lot of research on my own in libraries. I read a lot about the history of abortion in this country to give myself some background. I really wanted to be responsible.

I was doing the book quietly for a long time, mainly out of shyness. I was worried that people wouldn't respond to it well. When I finally started talking to people openly about it, I was flooded with so many stories from girlfriends, from women, from my parents' friends — all across the map, men and women. They told me their stories, what they’d been through and what friends had been through. And it reaffirmed that this was important. There were so many people who wanted to talk about it.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from the public?

It’s been amazing. We sold out of the first printing — a week before it even came out. It's gotten some key reviews that were very much in the spirit of how I hoped it would be perceived. So people do accept it as a comforting handbook, which is great.

I’ve also had a couple of pro-life websites that blasted it — and they hadn't read it yet. It was before it was out. There were two websites that went really berserk — especially the part about it being a comic book. It was this idea that comics are somehow funny and that therefore I thought abortion was hilarious or something. I was very alarmed by this sort of force anger behind some of these blogs. I’ve been referred to as a Nazi and a baby murderer. At first, I was a little stunned.

I’m aware I wrote a book about a polarizing subject. But the response from women has been incredible. I'm hearing all of these stories, which is really moving. Since the book came out [in early August], I’ve gotten letters almost every week of women sharing their experiences, writing things like, "I was 16 and it’s not legal in my country and it was very difficult."

You've done fiction and a very frank handbook. What do you think you might do next? 

Ironically, I started a children’s book about two years ago and I put it on the back burner to write this. So I’m going back to that now!

"Not Funny Ha-Ha" ($16.99) by Leah Hayes is available now from Fantagraphics Books.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah. Get news of the book at @NOTFUNNYBOOK

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