A work about abortion easily lends itself to propaganda, either for or against this controversial subject. Matthew Lickona deftly avoids simplistic moralizing around this polarizing issue in his self-published horror comic Alphonse.
Lickona understands that “good horror stories are moral anxiety writ large” and “that there is moral anxiety about abortion.” He would like to claim that this is what inspired Alphonse. Lickona sees these truths in his work only when he thinks about it in hindsight, which is always 20-20.
In “Why I Did It: How I Came to Write a Comic Book About an Aborted Fetus,” Lickona recognizes the moral anxiety over abortion.
I think abortion is “heart-wrenching” because something dies in an abortion—something that, ordinarily, would eventually grow into what everybody agrees is a human person. Some people think this “something” is a human person from the moment of conception. Others think it is a human person only after it leaves its mother’s body. Many others fall somewhere in between, and believe that abortion should be legal, but restricted in this or that way.
Why do they fall somewhere in between? I don’t think it’s absurd to suggest that it’s because they’re uncertain. Yes, they affirm a woman’s right to choose whether or not to carry her pregnancy to term. But… something dies, something that, ten weeks into the pregnancy, has hands and a face. They’re uncertain about just what that something is. And from that uncertainty arises moral anxiety: if the fetus is not a person, then we need not worry overmuch about disposing of it. But if the fetus is a person, then abortion is a moral horror.
Alphonse presents an unborn infant “whose personhood is so manifest that he has the faculties of a fully developed adult.” Like any adult, whose life is threatened, this child “is consumed with rage after suffering betrayal at the most fundamental level, and who vows revenge on those who sought to take his life.” Lickona sees his work in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and the “perversely prophetic character of the freaks who populate” her stories.
As much as he would like to, Lickona cannot claim these high-minded rationales for his comic. He did not “sit down and wonder, ‘How can I best explore the moral anxiety surrounding abortion in a fictional setting?’” Instead, the seed was planted with a description from the promo copy of Pixy, a 1993 graphic novel by Max Andersson:
Alka Seltzer and Angina Pectoris have all the luck — bad, that is. They’ve been ejected into the street because their apartment was put to sleep, Angina had to abort their child (the result of a malfunctioning Safe-Sex bodysuit) — how could it get worse? When a friendly stranger offers them his apartment, things seem to be looking up… but then Angina gets a call from the Netherworld. It’s her aborted fetus: he’s drunk and he’s pissed off. (Emphasis added)
This “call from the Netherworld” was watered by a “serious twinge” as Lickona “watched Kill Bill Vol. 2 and saw the Bride instantly transformed by the realization that she was pregnant.” Alphonse finally took root with “a comic strip character called Umbert the Unborn. Umbert is a fetus in utero who is endowed with reason, will and detailed knowledge of the world outside the womb—including legalized abortion.”
As with all good stories, Lickona’s comic finally sprouted and began to grow with “What if?”
What if there was a fetus who really was sentient, who was suspended upside down in the dark, and who knew he was slated for termination? What would that do to a person? I figured it would leave him deeply twisted—consumed by fear and rage, but also desperate for love. That’s Alphonse.
If Lickona attempted to create Alphonse simply to explore “the moral anxiety surrounding abortion,” it is safe to say he would not have created the haunting and disturbing work that is this comic. The first issue introduces several compelling characters; the drug addicted birth mother, the abortionist who wants what’s best for his patient, the “pro-choice” reporter who is also the mother of the young pro-life protester who finds Alphonse, the nearly aborted child, who drags himself into a nearby ally after the botched procedure.
The book’s most compelling scenes are, naturally, with Alphonse. Lickona portrays him with disturbingly hollow eyes on two occasions. The first when Alphonse snaps the abortionist’s finger and pulls himself through the incision in his birth mother’s belly. The second during a horrific hallucination caused by withdrawal from heroin that he shared with his birth mother while in utero. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the images Lickona creates leaves one wondering what kind of twisted soul exists within this child.
An artist does not force prepackaged, easily digested ideas into his audience so they may regurgitate them on demand later, despite what the glorified technician James Cameron might think. That is the path toward propaganda, not art. Matthew Lickona, who sits “squarely in the camp that holds to the personhood of the fetus from the get-go,” clearly understands this. I believe he has succeeded in creating “a work of art (however minor) that would do some of the things that art does—reflect experience, engage imagination, and just maybe, enlarge perspective.”