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PG Tips No. 35:

In Times of Love and War

Sometimes a person’s most fleeting glance or micro-expression, a seemingly throwaway comment, simply sharing their presence, can become transfixed with significance, freeze-framed in the memory like a panel in a comic, always there to revisit and linger over. The visual and verbal registers of graphic novels seem well suited to pinning down these butterfly-like subtleties, as this selection shows.

In A Taste of Chlorine, a meek teenager reluctantly accepts his chiropractor’s orders to take up swimming every Wednesday to help treat the curvature of his spine. On his second visit to the pool, we gaze subjectively through his wide-open eyes at a young girl’s moment-to-moment movements, as she adjusts her goggles and cap, enters the water and stretches her arms, before pushing off to complete a vigorous width and back again. Keeping his head half-submerged, he floats alongside to study her, as she later walks beside the pool, and in a final moment letting loose her long black hair. His look of surprise and longing tells us everything.

Their first exchange is merely a goodbye, their second his awkward explanation of his spinal problem, but gradually a friendship grows between the boy, struggling and unathletic, who can make her laugh, and the girl, a champion swimmer, who gives him tips and encouragement. When she agrees to teach him somersaults, he smiles and replies, “Yeah, I trust you”, and they swim the backstroke in unison. But the message she mouths to him underwater remains tantalisingly cryptic. French prodigy Bastien Vivès is attuned to the vulnerability of adolescent physiques and feelings. He bathes these youngsters’ bodies in swathes of turquoise, shifting from flesh-coloured outlines above the surface to pure grey-green abstractions beneath, transforming the pool into a special space, fluid with hopes and desires.

The blurred boundaries between love and friendship traverse Empire State: A Love Story (Or Not). Jimmy Yee, aged twenty-five, is a single, Asian-American librarian and would-be artist or webdesigner whose whole life has been spent in Oakland, California, living at home with his mother and signing his paychecks over to her. He sees no reason to leave, but when his friend Sara, a “nice Jewish girl” and an experienced but frustrated online dater, tells him about moving away to New York, shy Jimmy can’t name a single reason to her to stay - because that single reason is him. With Sara gone, the words ‘New York’ stare out at him from the books in the library. Then Sara sends him a surprise Strand bookstore bag, and Jimmy finally breaks free to follow her, crossing America on a gruelling bus trip, thinking he needs a passport for a domestic flight. Ever the geeky romantic, he writes to arrange to meet her in that city he calls a “festering hellhole”, on top of the Empire State Building, like in Sleepless in Seattle, although she never shows. Life in the Big Apple has changed Sara and will change Jimmy too.

Jason Shiga follows the fortunes of his semi-autobiographical alter ego forwards and backwards in time, arranging different sized panels into diagrammatic clusters, casting Oakland in red tones, blue for New York, mixing both colours when Jimmy is at work or on a disastrous arranged date. Shiga’s simplified caricatures, round heads with weary or tearful lower eyelids, can still impart subtleties. During Jimmy’s parting with Sara, she accidentially quotes him verbatim from a letter of his, which she had claimed never to have received. A tiny close-up shows her looking over at him, worrying if he will notice, but in the next panel he carries on chatting, while Sara has her eyes closed in relief. Jimmy may not have found love, but by the end he has opened up his world.

Men have been a disappointment to Amy Breis, Paul Hornschemeier‘s lovelorn heroine in Life With Mister Dangerous. Dulled by her department store job, living alone with Moritz the cat, Amy is addicted to the animated television show ‘Mr Dangerous’, whose peculiar characters start to populate her unconscious. While she talks to her moggie and even more to herself out loud, much of her contact comes via the telephone. We overhear only her side of the conversation, her rehearsals before she dials, or the thoughts she cannot speak, once she hangs up. One disjointed call to Eric abruptly ends her “most current romantic attempt”; their broken relationship is reduced to eight concise fragments in grey and pale orange as ‘Amy Breis Theatre Presents’. In panel six, Eric holds her on the sofa as he discusses babies’ names, while she repeats his words, “If we keep it?” In panel seven, Eric, now standing behind the sofa, face hidden, asks “How did it go?” while Amy sits, eyes lowered, her arms crossing her stomach. Things hardly improve on Amy’s twenty-sixth birthday, when her divorced mother buys her a Chinese lunch and a pink ‘Smiley Trotter’ unicorn sweater. Amy treats herself to ice cream, fantasising about morphing into an obese cartoon mockery, and ends up sleeping with the ice-cream vendor on another regretable one-night stand. 

Her own harshest critic, Amy only truly comes alive when she talks on the phone with Michael, someone to whom she can tell almost everything, an absent friend and maybe something more. A secret smile lights up her face when he tells her that he asked a woman out but was turned down, and she lies, “Oh, I’m sorry.” Michael’s beard starts to appear on her cat’s face in her dreams, or on the face of another unsatisfactory lover from work. Her long-distance chats with Michael become Amy’s lifeline. So do the two packages laden with meaning that he mails her, the first containing a ‘Mr Dangerous’ figure he has carved to replace one shattered by Eric, the second offering four wittily annotated photos of her “space- and time-spanning adventures with Moritz”. A message in one these gifts might unlock Amy’s heart. Hornschemeier designs and writes with great refinement, absorbing the influences of both Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware yet arriving at an approach distinctly his own. The result is a character study of keen perception and empathy.

The end of a relationship can be equally fascinating, as described by rising British cartoonist Luke Pearson in Everything We Miss. With its cover designed to mimic a cool Sixties Penguin paperback, Pearson’s breakthrough graphic novella, coloured in oranges and black, cleverly wrongfoots every expectation, avoiding mawkishness to flutter between bizarre melancholy and the rawest emotions. So much around us goes unnoticed, whether real or surreal. A man and woman argue in bed, but she never notices the bile-black spectre that oozes into Will’s body, “through the back of his head and into his mouth, gripping his molars and his tongue to craft his words.” Its job done, their romance souring, the figure floats back up to its vast flock hovering upright, Magritte-like, in the sky, symbolic spirits of negativity akin to J.K. Rowling’s “Dementors”. As the couple’s rows worsen, they are also unaware of the benign half-lizard, half-spider “anurids”, always observing humankind, missing nothing, but so lightning-swift they are never spotted.

A dancing pine tree, a surfacing sea-monster, a wife separating into sixteen pieces and reassembling: the weirdest marvels are happening, but behind our backs, out of sight. Will is too preoccupied with losing his love, his partner, his home, and perhaps his will to live. From the minutiae of growing roots or cancer cells to the macrocosm of gargantuan aliens tossing meteors like pebbles, Pearson builds his compact 38 pages into an intense simultaneity, an unknowable totality sprawling beyond the edges of the paper, beyond human perceptions. Finally, Pearson refocusses on Will’s darkest moment, caught between the black creature, back squeezing his brain, its fingers probing into his brow, and something else out there, “waiting and longing to be found”, much like Will himself. It’s never too late to start noticing.

Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown may appear to be in denial when his latest love affair fades away and yet he decides to stay on in the same apartment he shared with his ex-girlfriend, even when her new boyfriend moves in and the noise of their love-making and squabbling comes through his walls. Still, this helps him realise that “Romantic love causes more misery than happiness.” Rejecting “possessive monogamy” but still in need of sex, Brown eventually decides to try a prostitute. Brown, who is now forty, talks unashamedly about almost everything with his friends and fellow Toronto graphic novelists Seth and Joe Matt, who labels him a “whoremonger”. Paying For It, “a comc-strip memoir about being a john”, documents Brown’s indecisions over what to say, what to pay, his fears of robbery or arrest, his instant judgements of faces and figures, his every thought. After his very first time with ‘Carla’, he feels exhilarated and transformed - “It was so honest - upfront. It felt… natural.” He records, “A burden that I had been carrying since adolescence had disappeared. The burden has never returned.”

Thirty-three chapters, some as short as three panels, most named after the women he pays for sex, chronicle his varied encounters and the often unsatisfactory transactions they entail. This is a deliberately unarousing, matter-of-fact reportage, partly because it is told in such tiny minimalist panels, identical in size, at most eight on a page, surrounded by large blank borders and supplemented with twenty-three appendices and twenty-two pages of notes. Any prurience is further diminished by showing each woman mainly from behind, or covering their faces with their long hair, or cropping them with panel borders or speech balloons. The sex scenes are mostly viewed at a distance, little figures in a starburst surrounded by black, small lines indicating motions, with no facial expressions or body parts. The rare close-ups include one woman’s hairy mole and another examining Chester’s penis: “She’s obviously really careful -  this is a very thorough inspection.” More interesting is the way Brown tries to understand the women, their backgrounds, attitudes and etiquettes. One woman hides her face with her hair when having sex, to prevent him looking at her; another turns her face into a lifeless mask. It takes many visits before any woman kisses Brown on the mouth or makes eye contact during sex. In the end, Brown arrives at his own form of monogamy, keeping faithful to ‘Denise’ for six years, as she eventually is to him, yet he still pays her for sex. His is a life that is honestly told and lived outside of presumptions or stigmas.

“Therapy is like a romance, even if it’s the kind of love story where one person gets paid.” In Aaron and Ahmed: A Love Story, written by MacArthur Prize fellow Jay Cantor and illustrated by James Romberger, a veterans’ psychiatrist named Aaron Goodman channels his shame at being powerless to save his father who shot himself, or his wife who died on 9/11, into interrogating terrorist suspects at Guantánamo Bay. When torture fails, Aaron combines his transference therapy tricks with “a hormone cocktail, heavy on the estrogen” to persuade Ahmed, an Afghan engineer suspected of being Osama Bin Laden’s driver, to reveal what compels someone to become a suicide bomber, so they can learn how to switch it off.

Slowly, an unlikely bond forms. When Ahmed discloses that Bin Laden called his chanters “programmers”, Aaron’s superior’s oddball theory - that memes or “word-viruses” programme our brain’s computer to operate our “meat puppet” bodies - suddenly sounds plausible. Ahmed inflitrates Aaron into the jihadist training camps in Pakistan, but is Aaron wily enough to hear their “Holy Power Words”, the “God-meme”, without being brainwashed into becoming their “Chosen One… to infect the whole of the West”? More insidious than words in this indoctrination process are the images they show him, since a visual cue more effectively “lights a fuse in the brain”. We get to glimpse one prophetic image in particular of greedy traders on the floor of the U.S. Stock Exchange. Still unsure who is conning whom, the two men return illegally to New York. There is no reporting back to Guantánamo, now that Aaron feels contagious, primed, and Ahmed apparently becomes his loving protector. In the histrionic finale, Aaron answers his own question: “Maybe love is a meme that drives out the others… even the Holy Words.” Through the rush of ideas in their vigorously provocative post-9/11 psychodrama, Cantor and Romberger handle words and images respectfully; they know too well what both can trigger.

Posted: September 4, 2011

This article first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement in 2011.


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Article Tags

Bastien Vives
Chester Brown
James Romberger
Jason Shiga
Jay Cantor
Luke Pearson
Paul Hornschemeier
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Featured Books

A Taste Of Chlorine
by Bastien Vivès

Empire State:
A Love Story (Or Not)

by Jason Shiga

Life With Mister Dangerous
by Paul Hornschemeier

Everything We Miss
by Luke Pearson

Paying For It
by Chester Brown

Aaron & Ahmed:
A Love Story

by Jay Cantor
& James Romberger