Artist wins award for graphic novel about dementia

Rebecca Roher

Just two years after completing a program in comic book art, Rebecca Roher has won a prestigious prize for her first graphic novel, and her online comic strips are generating considerable buzz in Canada and the United States.

Roher, 30, won the Doug Wright Award, presented at the 2017 Toronto Comic Arts Festival, for Bird in a Cage, a non-fiction narrative about the toll of dementia on Roher’s maternal grandmother. 

Roher’s book, Bird in a Cage

“It was very exciting to win. It’s the biggest graphic novel award in Canada,” Roher said in a telephone interview from Upper Economy, N.S., where she’s working on a new suspense comic.


Her latest comic strip, Birth Control Tales, a four-part, online series about birth control and reproductive health, was commissioned by a gynecologist at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.

The fourth and final instalment is to be published by the end of the summer.

Dr. Aparna Sridhar contacted Roher after seeing her comic strip, Mom Body, in the Huffington Post. The strip, which is about the physical transformation of the female body during pregnancy, was also featured in the New York Times, Now, BuzzFeed, the Daily Mail and Yahoo Parenting.

“There was a lot of sharing [online] and re-sharing of Mom Body,” Roher recounted. “It’s led to a lot of work. I got a lot of jobs from different groups.”

Roher said she was inspired to become an artist by her mother, Beth Roher, a visual and ceramic artist who lives in Toronto. “She taught me a lot. She gave art instruction and she exposed me to art and ideas,” said Roher.

Roher studied painting at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design and graduated in 2006.

Over time, her work began to evolve. “I went from painting large oil canvasses to water colour illustrations,” she said. “I started honing in on illustration as visual story telling.

A snippet from Rebecca Roher’s comic Mom Body

“I wanted to do something small and transportable like a children’s book.… I didn’t really know how to get into book publishing.”

In 2013, she heard about the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt. She was accepted into a masters of fine arts program there and graduated in 2015.

“It set me on a new course. I fell in love with comics,” she said. “There are many different techniques to tell stories. A lot can come through with text and images.”

One story that had stuck with her for many years was that of her grandmother, Mary Campbell.

At age 80, Campbell was hit by a car. The accident brought on her dementia.

“It was heartbreaking to watch such an independently minded person lose her abilities and her freedom,” Roher lamented. “In the end, she’s trapped in a nursing home.”

A short version of Bird in a Cage garnered Roher the prize for best English comic in 2014 at Expozine, an annual zine, small press and comic fair in Montreal.

She said this award helped her get a bursary to teach comic art workshops, which freed her up financially and allowed her to complete her full graphic novel.

She sets up her grandmother’s story at the family’s cottage in the Muskoka region of Ontario, which was purchased by Campbell’s father in 1929. Over the years, the cottage was the place where multiple generations of the family gathered and sang songs from an old boy scout songbook.

“I grew up singing those songs,” Roher said. “My grandmother grew up singing them.”

Roher recalled how sad everyone in her family was when they realized it was no longer safe for Campbell, then in her 90s, to come to the cottage. “She was wandering off,” Roher said. “The last time we took her to the cottage, she was not speaking much, but she watched our mouths at the sing-along and she remembered all the songs.” 

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