Fantagraphics Books, $41.95 hb, 236 pp
The covers of comic books/graphic novels/sequential narratives, call them what you will, have a fundamentally different relationship to the contents of their books than the covers of ‘ordinary’, text-only works. For the latter, the cover image is usually produced by a designer whom the author does not know and may never meet. In the case of comics, however, the cover image is made by the same hand that creates the images that proliferate within the book. The cover of a text-only book is communicating a sense of what the book is like through the totally different language of images. For the browser, that’s like trying to decide whether to attend a concert on the strength of a billposter. With a comic book, the sort of thing you see on the cover is the sort of thing you get inside. A comic book begins before you even open it. Basically, you can judge a comic book by its cover.
Two recent début graphic novels by Lee Lai and Tommi Parrish (friends and ex-Melburnians now living in Montreal) give us a chance to examine this relationship of cover to content, and to broach the vast discussion of a comic book maker’s style, their approach to art and design, their visual voice. Both these books focus on a pair of women working away at the mystery of a complicated romantic relationship. These characters are flailing through the doldrums of their twenties and thirties, assailed by momentum-sapping cocktails of aimlessness, depression, alcoholism, anxiety, and self-hatred. Oof. In both books, one of the protagonists goes back to live with their parents. The father supports the mother and the mother battles with a brittle, baffled incomprehension at her daughter’s mental health woes. So much for the older generation. Luckily, both books feature young children (in Stone Fruit a niece, in Men I Trust a son) and on the pages on which they appear these narratives become most emotionally vivid, as the children demand attention and action from their beleaguered, becalmed mothers and aunts. Panels dominated by images from children’s television– Garfield and Peppa Pig – not only tell us what shows the children are watching but also gesture towards the main characters’ affliction by a sense of childish helplessness. The actual children, on the other hand, display occasional adult levels of empathy for, and forgiveness of, their careening carers. Forces for id, imagination, and energy, their appearances give both narratives the chance to burn brightly for brief stretches.