11.02.2009

Graphic Novel(s) of the Month

Aya: The Secrets Come Out (Drawn & Quarterly): The third installment of Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie’s autobiographically inspired look at 1970’s Cote d’Ivoire is just as strong in execution as the previous two, but ably tackles more intricate plot developments. While Aya does address complex issues as diverse as arranged marriages, the dynamics of polygamous relationships, closeted homosexuality, classic male female power struggles, the hidden power of the matriarch balanced against the superficial power of the patriarch, jealousy, secret mistresses, and the impact of cheating on the nuclear family, it’s not actually about focus on these singular events per se. What Aya does remarkably well as a narrative is shift our focus onto the broad sweep of cultural life in the Ivory Coast during this time period. Of course, there are some specific human reactions that are tragically universal, such as Aya’s mom blaming the existence of her husband’s mistress on her own actions: “It’s my fault, I’ve let myself go these past years…” But for the most part, it defies the expectations most audiences would possess based on topical media coverage of Africa as a whole. Thanks to the creators, we find a nation not marred by tribal warfare or disastrous famine, but a strong and unified sense of community in the culture, as evidenced by the town’s hysteria and all encompassing involvement in the Miss Yopougon Contest. The secrets do indeed come out in this installment. As the book lives up to its subtitle, we see the generation gap so common in so many societies. The kids are testing their traditions and customs, while the parents’ tolerance for the progressive is equally put under duress. This creates wonderful storytelling tension, as each successive generation seeks to express themselves, but attempt doing so in a language of mores and norms foreign to their elders. This is an utterly human experience and the beautifully exasperated emotions that quickly move Abouet’s tale along are punctuated by Oubrerie’s full page shots that brilliantly capture these isolated moments in time. They also function as intuitive chapter breaks that change sets or story threads effortlessly. Oubrerie’s thin anemic lines underscore the frailty of the tenuous living arrangements, lives, deaths, and relationships; the very existence of these people seems to hang by a thread as thin as the pencil lines used to illustrate them. In that respect, Aya is adventurous but also unsettling. This series of books (thankfully already up to volume five in France) documents these perfectly detailed snapshots of culture in a specific period, yet provides themes that are timeless, identifiable, and inviting to any readership. Grade A+.

3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man (Dark Horse): Matt Kindt has slowly and surreptitiously crept up to be one of the best visual storytellers working in the medium today. If you compare his early Pistolwhip work to this piece, it’s evident there was a turning point somewhere between 2 Sisters and Super Spy. Instead of the stark clean lines found in the former, the latter works bear fully rendered watercolors and more fully bodied figure work, with particular detail in the faces and surroundings. Each page functions not only as part of the larger whole, doing its part to relay the overarching story, but are also capable of standing on their own as fascinating miniature masterpieces in their own right. It’s amazing to see so much story being told in one single static image. The best example of this is probably found on pages 9 to 11, as Kindt plays with time to emphasize meaning. Despite all of the panels occupying the same overall volume of space, he’s able to slow down and speed up time with their subtle design variations, placement of text, and the quantity of text contained. Page 13 is a virtual Easter egg hunt, with “Cheval Noir” (aka: Dark Horse) not jutting out awkwardly, but being subtly embedded in war torn France, like an old Cinzano sign one might see in an outdoor café in a period piece of Italy. Kindt’s artistic choices are crafty, but not simply for the sake of themselves, always appearing in service to the story. Examine the bullet wound on page 17 or the magnificent illustrated footnotes on page 14. The story beats on page 19 are managed particularly well, pausing themselves for dramatic effect when appropriate. Kindt’s art is so well conceived and in unison with his narrative, like the basic idea of the size of the growing boy actually attempting to compensate physically in some way for the emotional loss and void that his mom experiences when his dad leaves. Another example is his girlfriend’s construction of architectural miniatures. Jo appears to be psychologically trying to find a way to command her own reality in the way that Craig does with his relative size. Craig seems to be happiest when the world comes together to build him a house, a place to finally belong and literally fit in, so that he doesn’t have to perpetually try and fit into the world. His role with society is happily reversed for a time. Jo initially seems to understand that his overseas CIA tour is one of the only times he doesn’t really feel useless. His one secret is being a spy; it’s the only thing he’s able to keep from the world, an entire reality that knows of him and his story. But eventually, Jo grows resentful. As everyone is shrinking around him, Craig’s involvement in the world and interaction with even his family actually shrinks away with the size differential. He begins losing his connection to humanity, there is the typical psychosis associated with attachment disorder. Jo counters by creating her own world within a world, as she’s incapable of being seen physically by him, or felt emotionally by him, her act of infidelity is a desperate plea for attention of any kind. The destruction of the life she knew is reflected in her art pieces, she expresses her world falling apart under the eyes of her own personal god looking down on creation. It’s taken to an extreme level as Jo says “he literally grew away from us.” She and Craig can no longer communicate, as her size phases her out of his sensory experience. Functionally, if he attempted talking to her it would cause her eardrums to burst. Her voice is like a tiny mosquito buzz to him. The sound goes, the sight goes, and so go all of the feelings in their absence. It would be like you or I trying to have a relationship with a significant other the size of a single speck of dust on our lips. Kindt constructs the story formally from the alternating, but ordered, points of view of Craig’s mom, his wife, and his daughter. It’s a smart structural choice that perfectly mirrors the phases of birth, life, and death. His mother’s story is perhaps the saddest (being abandoned by both husband and son), his wife’s arguably the most tragic (beginning in love and connectedness, only to slowly slip away), and his daughter’s perhaps the most hopeful. Craig’s daughter seeks simply to understand a man she never really knew except in the lost glimpses he left in the world. In that way, she’s no different than any one of us trying to understand our parents merely by the objects and impressions they leave behind on the world long after they’re gone. Grade A+.

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