Friday January 18, 2013
Two graphic novels making waves
Worlds of Wonder by SHARMILLA GANESAN
Two graphic novels are making waves by being nominated alongside more traditional novels for the Costa book awards.
THE complex terrain of the parent-child relationship is something most of us have traversed. The universality of this particular issue may explain why not just one, but two graphic novels, have managed to cross the divide and, for the first time ever, bag nominations for Britain’s prestigious Costa book awards this year.
Breaking the stereotype that graphic novels are for superhero fans and fantasy geeks, both novels use the visual narrative form to tell stories that are simultaneously personal, relatable and very real. The nominations, in fact, are merely a higher profile acknowledgement of something graphic novel fans have always known: that the art form is simply another way to tell a story.
Joff Winterhart’s Days Of The Bagnold Summer, which is about the relationship between a dowdy librarian and her heavy metal-loving teenaged son, was nominated in the best novel category alongside heavyweights like Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, Stephen May’s Life! Death! Prizes! and James Meek’s The Heart Broke In (Mantel took home the prize).
Meanwhile, Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary M. and Bryan Talbot – a biography-cum-memoir that intertwines author James Joyce’s relationship with his daughter Lucia and Mary’s own with her father, a Joycean scholar – was nominated for and eventually won the best biography category. As category winner, Dotter is currently in the running for the Costa book of the year award, which will be announced on Jan 29.
Both works are fascinating, albeit in completely different ways. Dotter is an elegant, literary piece of work that is obviously very personal to Mary, and is lovingly illustrated by her husband Bryan (the creator of The Adventures Of Luther Arkwright).
In it, Mary recalls her difficult relationship with her father, Joycean academic James S. Atherton, an intense and temperamental man who could just as easily explode in anger at her as charm her with his wit and affection. Desperately longing to please him even as she rebels against him, Mary’s experiences will strike a chord with anyone who has had to struggle to match up to a parent’s expectations.
What makes her story so unique, however, is the parallel narrative of Lucia’s story. The apple of James’ eye, Lucia was a gifted dancer whose potential was never taken seriously by her father; he was of the assumption that the most important thing a woman needed to learn was how to enter a room like a lady. Meanwhile, her mother was nasty and verbally-abusive. Lucia eventually descended into insanity and spent the last 30 years of her life in an asylum.
Bryan’s mostly monochromatic artwork is simple yet beautiful and emotive, with hues playing an important role in evoking the mood. Mary’s past is depicted in nostalgic sepia tones (with occasional splashes of strong colour), while Lucia’s story in 1930s Paris is realised in inky drawings, reminiscent of newsprint; the present, however, is in gorgeous full colour.
In contrast, Bagnold’s artwork seems extremely spare. The utilitarian black-and-white drawings, presented as comic strips, don’t offer much in terms of detail; what they do, though, is foreground the expressions and appearance of the two leads, 15-year-old Daniel and his mother Sue.
When a trip to visit his father and new wife in Florida is canceled, Daniel is faced with the prospect of spending six weeks of summer at home with his mum. Winterhart breaks the story down into six parts, highlighting happenings both mundane and poignant in each week.
Told with a wry sense of humour, the story of how mother and son struggle to find common ground is both funny and deeply affecting; Winterhart perfectly captures Daniel’s teenage angst and Sue’s desperate desire to recognise her little boy in the skulking teenager. While Sue’s attempts to discuss heavy metal music or tattoos with her son will bring a smile to your face, it is also impossible not to get misty-eyed when Sue takes private pleasure in still being able to make her surly son laugh.
The best thing about Bagnold is that it doesn’t preach or offer solutions. Instead, the slice-of-life style of storytelling lets the characters and events speak for themselves, and to their credit, while the characters may not be perfect, they are perfectly human, and keeps us rooting for them all the way.
> Days Of The Bagnold Summer and Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes are currently available at Kinokuniya, Suria KLCC.