By Brandon Murakami
Choy, Mylo. Middle Distance: A Graphic Memoir. SelfMadeHero, 2023.
Mylo Choy’s (they/them) graphic sports memoir, Middle Distance, is a beautifully stunning debut which covers the course of their life from childhood to present-day, mediated by and through Choy’s shifting relationship with running. Illustrated in black-and-white and accompanied with handwritten text, Middle Distance offers a deeply poignant experience for its readers as Choy reflects on the importance of running as a physical way to “process” and “deal” with their emotions. The central conflict that Choy must confront and overcome is what happens when this outlet becomes unavailable due to injury. As Choy physically heals, they also explore alternative strategies to identify their feelings as well as how to express or communicate them in productive ways; the graphic memoir Middle Distance represents such a development. Ultimately, Middle Distance captures Choy’s journey and healing (in multiple forms) while also serving as a deeply reflective reminder of “the ups and downs that are inevitable in the long run” of that thing we call life (147-149).
One of the many strengths of Middle Distance is the way that narrative meshes with the “theme” of running. Like the overall motion of the runner on the circular track, things constantly “circle back,” such as the constant visual motifs—the gusts of wind, sharp waves for pain, radial lines denoting interiority or validation—that accompany the otherwise minimalist visual narrative. At other times, we have imagery that vividly recalls earlier moments and the “distance” that Choy’s narrative/life has covered. For instance, after discovering their passion for running as a child, Choy runs across an intersection (21), a scene that reappears many years and pages later, except that Choy is now an adult living in New York City following a few years of taking “time off” due to injury (144). That the later scene harkens back to Choy’s first exploration is not dissimilar to a runner making laps on a track, this visual repetition like the closing of the narrative circle.
However, rather than go “nowhere” on a closed track (as a runner ultimately does), Choy’s narrative perpetually moves forward with momentum despite the significant challenges they run into as they grow older. As a form of self-empowerment, running was a way for Choy to “process feelings… without words, and without anyone else” (58) for most of their life until a gradually worsening physical injury prevented them from running at all. Rather than shrink from the challenge before them—an inability to “process” or even identify their emotions or otherwise be consumed wholly by despair—Choy recounts their healing and growth, emotionally as well as physically. Middle Distance embodies not just Choy’s shifting relationship to words as a result of their “time away from running” (137) but also a multimodal representation of their “inner life to the outside world” (138).
There are three particularly notable and narratively impactful moments that capture the Choy’s shifting relationship with words: Choy’s “working through” their reliance on running for an alternative method mentioned briefly above; the scene in which Choy “comes out” as nonbinary to their family (as well as to us, the readers); and their completion of the major running goal, the NYC Marathon. The first two are tied to Choy’s overcoming of the physical injury which hobbles their ability to process their emotions until they can develop a new method to identify, understand, and express their feelings. Eventually, this culminates in Choy’s achieving their running goal and a somewhat bittersweet moment of introspection which paves the way for a rather meditative ending. Each of these highlighted moments deepens our understanding of Choy, their life, and ultimately, the message of Middle Distance as a whole.
Reflecting on how/why running became such a crucial coping mechanism, Choy notes that it allowed them to turn “inward for assurance” (49) and “be self-contained, keeping my feelings as small as possible. So small that I often didn’t know what I felt” (50-51). Running, then, provided a sense of stability and interiority—a physical act to “working out” one’s feelings. At the same time, it allowed Choy a measure of repressing their emotions, a sort-of “out” to needing to understand (or identify) them. Thus, when Choy becomes unable to run as a coping mechanism—the injury worsening over time—it is both the central conflict and the climax of Choy’s memoir as they must now find out how to cope “with pretty much everything” (89), overwhelmed with emotions but not being sure exactly where to start. Choy visualizes this struggle as them flailing in a deep ocean of feelings, the color black dominating these pages (91-100, See Figure 1). Choy similarly covers pages in black in earlier moments of the narrative where the messy and difficult work of emotional processing is accomplished by way of avoidance (48-49, See Figure 2). The use of an ocean as a metaphor and of Choy “drowning in emotions” is particularly effective. Though initially unable to keep afloat, Choy finds “tools to navigate life” (93) represented by a diving mask. This allows them the ability to both “breathe” but also, incrementally, “explore” the sea of feelings or identify what (and why) they feel the things they do. Thus, we see more than just the “surface” of the ocean as this process continues: coral, marine life, and the extinct Dunkleosteus represent Choy’s own emotional growth as well as their ability to increasingly communicate these emotions to others.
It is with Choy’s emotional growth that we see both the return of the Dunkleosteus—which embodies Choy’s “fear of making people uncomfortable” (98)—and the second significant moment: Choy’s coming out. This moment occurs across two pages and is captured in four panels where Choy plainly notes their name and pronouns to their family in an email and finds acceptance (see Figure 3). Despite their anxieties—as evidenced by the Dunkleosteus’ presence—Choy recognizes how words can bring both “more connection” to others as well as the possibility of “more vulnerability” (138-139). Yet, words, as Choy also reflects, can’t always “tell the whole story,” especially when it comes to one’s inner life (139). Perhaps this explains Choy’s choice in terms of form for telling their story as a graphic memoir; graphic narrative compensates with image when words are insufficient and vice-versa.
If Choy’s injury and healing comprise the major conflict of their narrative and its eventual resolution, the culmination of Middle Distance’s lessons comes in Choy’s successful completion of a long-held goal: the NYC Marathon. Fittingly, they admit that finishing the roughly 26-mile course was “a little anticlimactic” (126) and confess that they believed they would “go right back to being the person I was before my injury” as they reenter their apartment while the visual narrative pans out (129). A spread of the city at night covers the pages while Choy’s realization—“But I had changed”—floats in the sky, underscoring their lesson: that one’s life has “no defined end or destination” (128). Rather, it is a journey of growth that is uneven, accomplished in bursts, and perhaps stop-and-go at times, but one that always continues forward in time and draws us all into the future.
Middle Distance is a flexible text: it can easily be used across a range of educational settings at all levels and is additionally suitable as a text for the general public. Although the narrative itself is not long or overly complex, it is particularly poignant and allows readers many avenues to engage and analyze the unique aspects which deepen Choy’s superb storytelling. Completing Middle Distance was, like many great stories, bittersweet. On the one hand, we move back to our daily lives as readers, transformed in some way, ideally. On the other hand, the treat in reading something as honest and affective as Choy’s graphic memoir is that it reverberates with everything you’ve ever read. Case in point: how Middle Distance ends.
The final two-page spread features unadorned hills under a starry night sky, whistles of wind in the air, with the moon high above (150-151). No words offer any closure—the final ones (“in the long run,” (149)) occur on the previous page—and Choy instead leaves us to contemplate on the journey we’ve taken with them. Although wildly different in terms of tone and story, this closing reminds me of Shen Comix’s “We Go Forward” wherein the final panel is similarly poignant and introspective: the road of life, like the race of time, moves ahead. We can look back—perhaps in fondness, perhaps in search of knowledge—but we cannot go back just as Choy realizes there is no returning to who they “used to be.” Instead, whether in small steps, in gradual leaps, or in wide strides, through the ups and the downs and every moment in-between, as in life, we move forward.
Shen Comix. “We Go Forward.” Imgur.com, July 7, 2014.