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6 February 2019

Exploring memory in the graphic novel

Most of us look back with a certain amount of longing. Two new graphic novels break with tradition.

By Yo Zushi

We’re irrational animals. Sentimental, too. In 2008, the MIT behavioural economist Dan Ariely conducted an experiment in which participants played a computer game that presented three doors on the screen, each of which paid out different sums of money when clicked on. The sensible strategy would have been to identify the highest-paying door and stick to it until the game was up, but as soon as the neglected doors began to shrink – ultimately to disappear – participants started wasting clicks trying to keep the less lucrative options open. It’s dumb but we can’t help it. Human beings need choice, even just the illusion of it. George Eliot once wrote that choice was “the strongest principle of growth”. How can we grow if we can’t choose to?

Most of us look back on our formative years with a certain amount of longing – youth presents myriad opportunities to take your life one way or the other. Then age catches up with you, and the doors around you start to shrink.

If that’s the convention, the French comic artist Edmond Baudoin has found a way to break from it. Born in Nice in 1942, he was a compulsive drawer, sketching dreamy observations on to his school desk and drifting through imagined adventures with his younger brother, Piero. Both siblings, a year and a half apart in age, showed early promise as artists, but Baudoin drifted into the conventional life of an accountant. (Piero attended a prestigious art school, but eventually abandoned his calling after years of disappointment.) In his early thirties, however, Baudoin quit his job and slowly began to establish himself as an important voice in European literary comics. Piero is his memoir of the childhood he shared with his brother, yet it’s also a meditation on the importance of dreaming: its power to connect two people, and to conjure into existence new doors to walk through.

It’s simply told. While on a walk, the adult Baudoin notices that the leaves falling from the plane trees looming above are “the grey of a sad sky”. But he remembers them differently – they once seemed to him colourful playthings to pile into mounds and leap upon, then draw pictures of on scraps of paper with his brother. Within two pages, we’re lost in their early years in the village of Villars-sur-Var, watching them race toy boats and craft childish clay sculptures.

What could have been painfully twee is rendered profound by the apparent coarseness of Baudoin’s pen work. Though the drawing is scratchy and often spare, each frame is perfectly composed to evoke the sights and sounds of this youthful paradise, as well as its rhythms. It feels too real to be contrived, though not real in a mimetic sense: anyone who is close to their siblings will recognise the essence of that bond in rare clarity. The tale of a stranded Martian and scenes of the brothers flying in Earth’s upper atmosphere are presented no differently in style to domestic scenes showing Piero’s recuperation from an illness. There’s good sense to this equation of emotional experience and lived experience – after all, the same part of our brains, the limbic system, processes both. Isn’t it true that the past lives only when we feel it? By bringing to life the feeling of childhood in himself, and in us, Baudoin resurrects the sense of a world unbound.

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Where Baudoin’s memories light our way to a humane Utopia, those of the 90-year-old American Jules Feiffer lead us somewhere darker. Feiffer, once an assistant to the comics pioneer Will Eisner, is best known as a long-serving Village Voice cartoonist, where he worked from 1956 to 1997. The Ghost Script is the last in a trilogy of long-form comics that began in 2014 with Kill My Mother and continued with 2016’s Cousin Joseph. All are period noirs in which genre conventions are taken at face value, not mocked, and put in the service of a sprawling narrative about glamour, race, anti-red paranoia in the 1950s and, of course, the meaning of America.

In his foreword, Feiffer explains his intentions by way of a memory. In 1953, he attended a memorial service of the actor J Edward Bromberg, who had died a couple of years earlier after prolonged McCarthyist persecution. There, he saw the playwright Clifford Odets denounce the state for having caused the death of his friend – but, a week later, he was appalled to hear that Odets had decided to supply names to the House Un-American Activities Committee and had fingered Bromberg as his recruiter. “Am I going crazy?” Feiffer wondered.

His response to that question, 65 years later, is this book. And it’s timely, given that craziness seems to have returned to the US in full force. Archie Goldman, a kid in the previous volume, has grown into a dishevelled private eye. Various figures, from union representatives to the mysterious philanthropist Lyman Murchison, come to him in search of a screenplay rumoured to expose the troublesome history of the Hollywood blacklist. Meanwhile, a dominatrix called Lola supplies him with gossip about the secret lives of the Los Angeles elite, and his socialist girlfriend, Annie, struggles to control her fascist son. The plot is too complex to summarise here, but a mark of Feiffer’s mastery is that everything seems inevitable once it has happened. It’s convincing genre fiction.

As in Piero, the artwork is unfussy and sketchy, but the filmic angles and direct references to Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep locate The Ghost Script in an altogether different imaginative terrain. Where the French book delves into personal memory as a means to connect with universal themes, Feiffer uses our collective memory of cinema to channel his personal disappointment at how low America could, and still can, stoop. The strategies are equally engaging, and end up with the same result: a moved reader. Both books are future classics. 

Yo Zushi’s new single, “Home at Last” (TWGDOYP Records), is available now

Edmond Baudoin, translated by Matt Madden
New York Review Books, 128pp, £11.99

The Ghost Script
Jules Feiffer
Liveright, 160pp, £19.99

This article appears in the 06 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe