Used to cat books like the ones you find near the check-out line at Barnes and Noble, with inspirational phrases printed next to photos of cats, they’re usually not quick to remind you that cats die, but there were cats before Sugar and cats after, and in Baeken’s book, cats don’t have nine lives.
That’s because Sugar: Life As A Cat (translated by Michele Hutchison) isn’t trying to be one of those books that does little more than feature a cat on the cover to ensure someone will buy it. This isn’t a book capitalizing on cuteness. Sugar: Life As A Cat is a black & white graphic novel about the cats that have been a part of writer and artist, Serge Baeken’s, family. It’s about what it’s like to live with a cat on a regular basis, how no two cats are the same, and how it starts with one cat but can grow into more, as the years go by.
I’m not and have never been a cat owner — just a cat admirer — but a few years ago my fish got sick. I’d never owned a pet before and he only lived with us a few months, but it knocked me out, how quickly you become attached. I thought I was done with beta fish after Salvatore, and I was for about a year, but now there’s Max and Phillip and they celebrated their move-in anniversary last month.
Loss translates, and while you might not share your home with a cat, there’s something to relate to in Sugar: Life As A Cat. There are also unfamiliar layouts, including pages that look like checkerboards. Sometimes they form a larger picture but when you inspect the panels closer they don’t line-up. Other times they change perspective, or give you a chance to see the world from a cat’s jumbled point of view.
There’s some commentary on what people do in front of their pets and how our sense of privacy doesn’t change if they’re in the same room. Sugar also considers how pets live separate lives. They’re their own people and will make their own decisions. They may go outside, or have the house to themselves. It can become the Matrix, watching Baeken’s cats move and defy gravity. Ceilings turn into floors. Instead of showing Sugar turn around during a game of fetch, Baeken has him move in a circle, something that isn’t logically possible (the hallway’s long) but can be visually achieved by switching back and forth, from one side of the hallway to the other. Environment makes a big difference, too. Sugar is a city cat while we meet Baeken’s first cat, Tim, on a trip to the beach.
I started this review talking about death, and there are some powerful ones in this book, but there are light moments, too, like the origin of Sugar’s name. Sugar is the title cat and I love the way Baeken wraps up his story, because [*and I don’t think this is a book you can really spoil but slight WARNING here*] he finds a way to tell his complete tale, but Sugar’s still alive at the end. Maybe it’s a cheat, but in the moment you don’t mind because it’s the present you need to concern yourself with, not what will happen in the future, and in Sugar: Life As A Cat, the present’s very feline.
Perhaps you’re not a cat fan, and that’s ok, but Baeken’s checkboard layouts challenge what comics can be. It’s worth sitting through a few cats to try and figure out what he’s depicting.
Sugar: Life As A Cat is on sale now from Soaring Penguin Press.