Keiler Roberts and her autobiographical comic series ‘Powdered Milk’

Keiler Roberts doesn’t like to keep secrets. 

“To me, if I have a personal secret, like when I was pregnant… for a while, it’s a secret, and nobody knows, but there’s this huge thing about you that you can’t stop thinking about,” Roberts said. “Everything feels like that to me. It just destroys me not to tell people.” 

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Through the medium of comics, Roberts tells funny, melancholy autobiographical stories about her life, exploring her relationship with her family, mental illness and a lot more. 

The 42-year-old artist creates and teaches comics in the Chicago area. Her comics are part of a series she calls Powdered Milk, which she releases in paperback collections. She began self-publishing these collections, but Koyama Press published her last three books, released from 2017-2019. Her Powdered Milk comics are autobiographical and told through short, sparsely connected vignettes from her life. 

Autobiographical storytelling appeals to her in a way that creating fiction just doesn’t. 

“It always seems more important than anything I would create that’s not just observed,” Roberts said. “I feel like when I’m looking at something, there’s no way I could make it better other than just be truthful about what it is.”

She figures this just may be a result of her personality. 

“I don’t think autobio is better or more important than fiction,” Roberts said. “I certainly don’t think that. I just think I’m better able to do it.” 

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Roberts’ comics are many things. Sometimes the anecdotes from her life are funny; the anecdotes can also be cute, dark, weird and sad. In Rat Time, from 2019, one panel shows how she would use empty oatmeal tubes for pet rat beds. 

Roberts recounts in Sunburning, a collection released in 2017, the time she told her daughter Xia that she has bipolar disorder. She explained what terms like “illness” and “symptoms” mean and told Xia that the reason she goes to the doctor and takes pills is because of her mental illness. She told Xia that she sometimes feels like she has a balloon about to pop inside of her. 

Then, a few pages later, Xia is shown wrapping presents with her dad and Roberts’ husband. He asks Xia what she thinks her mother would like for Christmas, and Xia, with a smile on her faces, says “pills.” 

“Certainly I would like to destigmatize and normalize conversations around mental health and stuff like that, but I’m not a spokesperson. That’s not my goal or vision or anything like that,” Roberts said. “It’s more like, I feel like it’s really important for me to be able to be honest.” 

Roberts tries to draw naturally, letting her drawings come without a ton of decision-making. She likens her drawings to the sort of utilitarian drawings people do when they’re trying to describe something that’s difficult with words, like a floor plan. 

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“Like when a teacher will draw on a chalkboard or something and they’re not an art professor, that kind of language that’s really just about describing, I try to let that be my drawing style,” Roberts said. “So I’m just trying to describe the scene, and I’m not trying to make it embellished or look better than a really pure description.” 

The sort of personal, transparent storytelling Roberts does is something many find incredibly difficult to do, but it’s different for Roberts.  

“I feel like it’s easier for me to be revealing and honest,” Roberts said. “That takes pressure off of me [more] than it does to hide things or keep things private.”

images courtesy of keiler roberts. photo by scott roberts. you can check out keiler’s website here

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