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Willy Linthout:

Years Of The Elephant

On Monday 23 November Comica ‘09 is thrilled to welcome one of the finest and funniest Flemish cartoonists, Willy Linthout, to the ICA in London. Willy’s autobio-graphic novel Years Of The Elephant, coming in English from Fanfare / Ponent Mon, has won him huge acclaim for the poignant and surreal account of his grief after the suicide of his young son. Willy will be in conversation with former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen, who wrote so touchingly about his own son’s death in The Sad Book illustrated by Quentin Blake. Expect an evening of insights into these tender, life-affirming first-person testimonies. More details about this event can be found here…

Willy Linthout at the Mekanik store in Belgium, August 2009

The years may pass, but elephants never forget. And how could any parent forget who suddenly loses their child through suicide? There is no escaping the constant reminders and unanswered questions. But if you are a cartoonist, for whom storytelling in words and pictures provides a way to escape reality, or re-shape and control it if only in imagination and ink, then perhaps you can face your conflicting feelings about your child taking their own life by expressing them through comics. This is what Willy Linthout attempts to do here in his poignant, unflinchingly candid graphic memoir.

Autobiography has found its perfect medium of expression in comics, an outlet often for one person, both writer and artist, to work things out on paper. Many of the finest graphic novels of this type, from Art Spiegelman’s Maus to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, deal with the complexities of relationships between father and child. But whereas those comics are usually told by the son or daughter very much from their perspective, here Willy Linthout speaks up from the viewpoint of a parent, a father, husband, brother and breadwinner. He adopts a similar approach to Eddie Campbell in Alec: The Years Have Pants or Yoshihiro Tatsumi in A Drifting Life, and uses a thinly disguised alter ego, Charles Germonprez. But there is no disguising the autobiographical heartfelt genuineness of this bereaved father’s emotions.

The language of comics is richly flexible and playful, ideally suited to the strange and surreal. As a best-selling cartoonist of some 130 zany Urbanus albums, Willy uses his skills brilliantly to convey a rollercoaster-ride of bewilderment, grief, anger, despair, paranoia and ultimately enduring love for his son. He makes some astute choices and constraints to strengthen its impact. For instance, he omits all captions, giving the reader no grounding in place or time, reality or fantasy, from one panel to the next, and instilling a similar sort of disorientation and confusion as his floundering protagonist is going through. Similarly, to make us share in his feelings of extreme isolation, even from his own wife, he decides almost never to portray her in these panels. Reflecting his troubled mental state, anything is possible and the stuff of nightmares or madness can suddenly invade the everyday.

And then in a masterstroke, he solves the question of how to represent and personify his own dead son by using the chalk outline of his fallen body. And in turn, this leads to his decision, based on his Flemish publisher Ria Schulpen’s suggestion, not to complete his sketched, uninked drawings but to leave them in their unrefined, pencilled state, urgent, vulnerable, as if to emphasise the human hand and heart behind them. This looser, unfussy, unpolished approach, also found in Joe Kubert’s Yossel and Jeffrey Brown’s Clumsy, seems to reinforce the honesty and intimacy of autobiographical comics. As Willy puts it, “Sam’s life didn’t get the chance to go all the way, it stayed unfinished, so the same goes for my pencils.”

But now, by finishing this cathartic graphic novel, instigated as self-therapy, Willy has given himself a way to remember. He is also giving others, especially those who experience a similar seismic family trauma, a way to come to terms with such depths of loss. Like an elephant, this cartoonist will never forget his son’s death, nor his son’s life. And neither will we.

Posted: October 25, 2009

The article first appeared as the introduction to the English edition of Year Of The Elephant published by Fanfare / Ponent Mon in 2009.

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Featured Books


Years Of The Elephant
by Willy Linthout


The Sad Book
by Michael Rosen
& Quentin Blake

AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL
COMICS


Maus
by Art Spiegelman


Fun Home
by Alison Bechdel


Alec:
The Years Have Pants

by Eddie Campbell


A Drifting Life
by Yoshihiro Tatsumi


Clumsy
by Jeffrey Brown