Paradox Press/DC Comics, 1995
ISBN: 1 56389 216 2
This graphic novel was one that I’d seen around for a long time, in libraries and comic book stores, on the internet even. But until it got forced into my hands, I never thought to read it. When I say ‘forced into my hands’, I mean ‘kindly lent to me’; it’s the joy of hanging out with book people, you always leave with a couple of treasures to read, and a list of recommendations as long as your arm. I can’t give you a good explaination for why I didn’t pick up this book before now, but I can give you a couple of weak ones.
Firstly, I never never choose to read anything based in a historical period if I can possibly help it. It’s a dumb reason, that one, because I sometimes enjoy the stuff that I do read (The Floating Book by Michelle Lovric was one that I enjoyed a lot, and I really liked Maus by Art Spiegelman, too). Historical movies I hate on a ridiculous level, ugh, God, Kingdom of Heaven is possibly the highest on that list, Orlando Bloom with his perfect teeth and his wrong horse and … hmpff, I’m going to move on from that before I get completely sidetracked. But yeah, I’d never line up to read about a historical period. There are just too many examples of people making the literary equivalent of Kingdom of Heaven out there, which is obviously way too taxing on my blood pressure.And, there was something about the illustration style that really bothered me; again, a dumb reason, because it was given to me to read because I was talking with a friend about how much I like Robert Crumb’s style of drawing. That was the first thing that the Lad said about the illustrations too – like Crumb… but… not. Too uniform somehow, too steady, at least to me. But who reads graphic novels for the illustrations? (For more explanation of that, frankly, bizzare statement, take a look at this earlier post).
After all of that shabby explanation, however, I’ve found out that there are several damn fine reasons that this comic is in Comic Journal’s list of 100 best English-language graphic novels. Not the least of which is that I sat down to read, and I was pretty much hooked at page 2. Not just regular hooked, you-can’t-stop-reading-hooked. My eyes started falling down when it got to one in the morning, so I went to sleep, but first thing I was up and reading again; I mean it, I got up at six-thirty in the morning on a Saturday to continue reading this book. The story is beautiful, wickedly personal (though in the acknowledgments, Cruse states firmly that this book is “…a work of fiction, not autobiography. It’s characters are inventions of mine, and Clayfield is a make-believe city.”), deeply unsettling in parts. Briefly, it’s the story of Toland Polk, who grows up in the ‘make-believe’ city of Clayfield, which is located expressly in the American South. He grows up at a time when the Civil Rights movement is just gaining momentum, coming of age right at the height of the most fevered pitches in that struggle. Thing is, Toland has his own struggle; it’s this telling of a larger narrative from the eyes of a character who has his own shit to deal with that I really like, the way that Cruse has presaged the beginning of the gay rights movement with Toland’s ‘awakening’ to social injustice at the height of the Civil Rights movement. And, yes, I know that that all sounds really idealistic. But, I guess, most of the attraction in the story was its complete humanity; it never takes the high moral tone that you might expect it to given it’s subject matter. Toland is weak, Hell, he’s human. He does things, we all do things that we’re not proud of. We’re cruel, thoughtless, violent even. We can’t always forgive people when the moral high-ground says we should. But sometimes, its not the things that we do that shame us – it’s the things that we don’t do. We turn aside, pretend not to see what’s going on around us, sit back and pretend that things aren’t our problem. I know that you can’t care about everything at the same volume; that’s a road to madness if ever I saw one.
I really liked the reminicing voice of the author, the interjections of his partner, who has obviously heard this story before. There is a really sweet gesture at one of the most traumatic places in the book, where the panels have been broken up like glass, everything is fractured and busted up, just like Toland’s memories of the incident, where the illustration has the present-day Toland amongst these fractured panels, with his partner standing behind him, holding his shoulder and his hand, comforting him, keeping him strong. There is a lot of beauty, a lot of love in the way that that’s drawn (gee, I guess I do look at the pictures after all…) I also love the way that the music, which is such a focal point of the story, wends it’s way through the panels, that was done really nicely too.
So, if you don’t like historical novels, don’t look at the pictures of graphic novels, and need a story to get hooked into, this one might be for you!