Celeste Mountjoy’s debut graphic novel, What the Fuck Is This, starts with a declaration in handwritten text about a childhood feeling of particularness. “Growing up, I often thought that my anxieties and flaws made me separate from everyone else – that my fears and heartaches were unique, and therefore far scarier and more profound than what ‘normal people’ experienced.” It is the ensuing realisation – that this vulnerability did not set her apart but rather connected her to others – that she expands with humour and subtle depth throughout the book.
Mountjoy is the creator of Filthyratbag, an online alter ego known for colourful, grungy art that depicts a rotating cast of charismatic dirtbags, including rat-human-hybrid babes in bikinis, shit-talking, cigarette-smoking cats and sarcastic seagulls. In Filthyratbag, Mountjoy serves up deadpan and satirical illustrations unpacking everything from gender and politics to the many contradictions of “self-care”.
What the Fuck Is This brings those characteristics to an extended and more personal narrative of the anxiety that has run throughout Mountjoy’s life. With pinpoint accuracy and self-deprecating profundity, she delivers a tender and personal treatise on the psychic weight of living.
Mountjoy explores life’s accumulation of loss with wry innocence and understatement – the cruel, paradoxical joke of loss, and the fear and impotence we feel when we meet it again and again. When a child version of Mountjoy blowing out birthday candles is accompanied by the text “I wished on my birthday candles for no fires”, a seagull in a birthday hat replies, “Oh! I love how normal that is.”
There is insight into Mountjoy’s own losses and fears – rejection, addiction, death – but the specifics are rarely revealed. This guardedness never feels exclusionary or defensive. In fact, it’s generous: keeping details private creates an equality between Mountjoy and her reader. Everyone’s experiences remain wholly their own to reflect on, with Mountjoy’s art the wisecracking and protective sidekick along for the ride.
Mountjoy is upfront about not aiming to arrive at answers – this is not a self-help book. But there is something special to be gained, beyond the pleasure and humour of its art, through its carefully considered demonstration of vulnerability. This is a mature and empathetic offering of solidarity that can be returned to again and again, both as a complete narrative and as the sort of book you can open to any page in the middle of an anxious “freak-out” and hug close to your chest.
Pan Macmillan, 232pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2022 as "What the Fuck Is This, Celeste Mountjoy".
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