Friday, June 26, 2009



A Self-Interview by Matthew Lickona

What is Alphonse?

It’s a five-issue comic book series I have written about eight lives that intersect after an abortion attempt gone horribly awry.


Well, the fetus survives the attempt. And then he escapes the abortion clinic. And eventually, he sets out on a mission of revenge. He’s not an ordinary fetus. Thanks to his unwitting mother’s use of various controlled substances, he is both intelligent and freakishly coordinated.

Good grief. Doesn’t this play into the “fetishize the fetus” mentality that pro-lifers are often accused of having? Always going on about the precious unborn baby, and effectively ignoring the plight of the woman in whose womb that baby is growing?

I hope not – in fact, I’m shooting for the opposite effect. Let me explain. In 2007, The Atlantic ran "The Sanguine Sex," an essay by Caitlin Flanagan that considered two books about the days before legalized abortion. The Choices We Made recounted the stories of pre-legal abortions, while The Girls Who Went Away considered the machinations of adoption in the case of unwanted pregnancy – young women being sent away to maternity homes, etc. In that essay, Flanagan wrote, "The history of abortion is a history of stories, and the ones that took place before Roe v. Wade are oftentimes so pitiable and heartbreaking that one of the most powerful tools of pro-choice advocates is simply telling them." I think this is true. It’s a hell of a thing to recite a principle like “a fetus is a person from the moment of conception” to a suffering woman whose story is genuinely tragic, and who regards her unwanted pregnancy as a disaster.

But later in the essay, Flanagan expressed sympathy for those who oppose abortion. Against the stories told by the women, she set an image: "An ultrasound image taken surprisingly early in pregnancy can stop me in my tracks. In it is much more than I want to know about the tiny creature whose destruction we have legalized: a beating heart, a human face, functioning kidneys, two waving hands that seem not too far away from being able to grasp and shake a rattle."

That was a brave admission on Flanagan’s part, and I don’t mean to take anything away from her courage in making it. But there is a way in which the image – with its exclusive focus on what’s in utero – remains outside the “history of abortion” that is “a history of stories.” What I’ve tried to do is to write the fetus into the story, but not in a way that excludes the mother. Or, for that matter, the doctor and nurse who attempt the abortion. It really is the story of eight lives – it’s just that Alphonse is one of them.

Still – isn’t the idea of a eight-month-old fetus scurrying around on a mission of revenge deeply creepy?

Absolutely. Alphonse is a living nightmare – I don’t think there’s any way around that. I think he’s akin to the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – a twisted, violent soul who nonetheless bears a kind of prophetic witness, both in spite of the violence and, in a way, through it. (And no, I am not suggesting any kind of support here for actual violence in defense of the unborn – shooting doctors or bombing clinics or anything like that. Whatever else he is, the Misfit is a murderer. And Alphonse – well, all I’ll say is that he runs up against the fact that violence begets violence.)

Was Flanagan’s essay the source of inspiration for your story?

No – my inspiration was actually another comic character: Gary Cangemi’s Umbert the Unborn. I think I first encountered him in The National Catholic Register. Cangemi had created Umbert to manifest the personhood of the fetus, and to that end, he had endowed the little guy with reason, will, and a pretty thorough understanding of the outside world. In particular, Umbert knew about legalized abortion.

Umbert was (and remains) a cheerful fellow. But he got me to thinking: what if it were true? What if there really was a sentient fetus, suspended upside down in the dark, barely able to move, completely dependent on its mother for sustenance and care, and constantly aware of the fact that, at any moment, it could be killed? That if Mom made the fateful choice, there was nothing - not even the law - standing between it and violent death? Month after month in the dark, wondering when the axe might fall. What would that experience be like? What would it do to a person? Alphonse was born out of that question.

Is that why you’re doing this as a comic – because it’s a response to a comic?

Maybe that’s part of it – it certainly wasn’t conscious. I just found myself sketching Alphonse one day, and it grew from there. (Of course, I didn’t have anything like the skill it took to produce the comic – I found a professional artist for that.) It just felt right; like movies, comics can work on a really visceral level, because the pictures tell so much of the story. It’s a blending of those two opposed media that Flanagan mentioned – the story and the image.

What are you trying to do with the story?

There’s a way in which I’m not trying to do anything beyond telling a good story. That may sound like a bit of a dodge – sorry about that – and it certainly raises the question of what I mean by “a good story.” For starters, I think a good story is one that is true to its own interior workings, and not aimed at imparting some further message or teaching some lesson. Is there a pro-life dimension to a story about a fetus who is also manifestly a person? Sure. But at the same time, you could argue that there’s a pro-choice significance to a story about a fetus who threatens to destroy his mother.

I didn’t set out to write a story about abortion and then come up with Alphonse. It really was born out of my response to Umbert. But I do think it’s interesting that the project developed during a period when abortion was making more and more forays into pop culture storytelling. I’m thinking of films like Juno, Knocked Up, 4 Months 3 Weeks & 2 Days, Revolutionary Road, Vera Drake, Waitress, Bella, even Black Snake Moan and The Crime of Padre Amaro. Ben Folds sang about abortion and its effects in “Brick;” Sarah Silverman did a skit on abortion for her TV comedy show. It’s still a pretty radioactive topic, but there seems to be an increased willingness to engage abortion on the level of story. I’m hoping that Alphonse will be allowed to join the conversation.

So what now?

Right now, issue one of the series is available online at 
Click here. Profits from the sale of issue one will go to fund the production of issues two through five. I’m also trying to solicit donations via Click here. Eventually, I’d like to see all five issues bound into one graphic novel. But for now, I just want to finish the story.

Matthew Lickona is a staff writer for The San Diego Reader, a weekly newspaper. His also the author of Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic, published in 2005 by Loyola Press.