Perhaps what’s most exciting about reading Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller is seeing a talented artist like Joseph Lambert unlocking his full potential with a difficult project. This is the latest in a series of comics biographies presented by the Center for Cartoon Studies and published by Disney for a young adult audience. As such, Lambert had the task of creating a set of visual cues to depict how the famous Keller perceived the world as a blind and deaf person, thus engaging his considerable skills as an artist and illustrator within a framework that needed to be easy to navigate for any reader. This book is wildly successful as both a visual project and as a biography, touching on a number of controversial issues while leaving it up to the reader to decide what really happened.
The story of Keller and Sullivan is one that’s been greatly celebrated in a variety of media, from books to stage to film. It’s a compelling story, given the narrative of the young and partly blind teacher finding a way to teach Keller how to communicate and bring her out of darkness. What’s interesting is that Lambert delves into the story behind the story, which includes Sullivan’s former teacher at the Perkins Institution for the Blind exaggerating Keller’s accomplishments in part to raise money for the school. Lambert goes out of his way to strip his narrative of romanticism without sacrificing an ounce of its true emotional power. At the same time, he makes every page a visual feast without showboating or adding extraneous flourishes.
Lambert neatly ties together the narratives of several characters. First, there’s Keller herself, who gains greater agency as she learns to communicate and then develops an unquenchable desire to learn about her world. What she thinks and perceives comes into question at the end of the book as the narratives come to a head. Sullivan’s fierce temper is driven by a childhood spent living in a brutal poorhouse with no education and a constant need to prove herself. Her pride and her temper are frequently powerful allies in her triumph over her circumstances, but they also hinder her in significant ways. Keller’s parents have their own simpler narrative, with her long-suffering mother giving Sullivan advice and a warning that prove to be effective and her father representing the intractable Old South (the Kellers lived in Alabama) and sexism. Finally, Sullivan’s teacher Michael Anagnos is the other key figure in the book; his interest in Sullivan’s potential and patience with her disdain for all authority helped shape her into a great teacher, but his treating her like a daughter wound up leaving him vulnerable to betrayal.
That’s a lot of ground to cover in just a hundred pages, but Lambert gets around that by employing a tight 4 x 4 grid on nearly every page. He collapses a couple of panels on some pages as a point of emphasis and goes to even larger panels when something emotionally and narratively powerful occurs, as when Helen is able to spell out “water” for the first time. Given the tiny panels he employs, Lambert keeps his figures simple and uses a thin and delicate line. Drifting toward a more cartoony style allows him to use all sorts of cartooning shortcuts, from dark squiggles over a character’s head indicating anger to a scribbly line on a face indicating rage. Lambert relies greatly on body language and gesture to communicate emotion, like the way Sullivan’s back stoops when she’s furious and the way her face screws up when she cries for the first time in school. Lambert’s other secret storytelling weapon is his use of color. Eschewing backgrounds in many panels is a choice he made for the clarity of his storytelling, but he is unerring in the selection of colors he chooses to fill out those panels. The beauty of nature is a running visual trope in the book as Helen tries to imagine what it’s like, but Lambert’s lovely palette is incredibly evocative as the reader tries to imagine what her home is like.
Of course, the reader is immediately confronted by Helen’s point of view as the story begins: darkness punctuated by Keller’s blue, blurry conception of herself and her environment, interrupted by a pair of arms forcing her to use a spoon to eat. We see that blurry figure flee after the third page of this struggle, and then we are introduced to the other characters in the book in Lambert’s normal style. It’s an exciting way to begin the book and a clever method by which to educate the reader as to what it was like for Keller. The way Lambert slowly changes Keller’s self-image is fascinating. First she associates the letters in hand signals with objects, before she makes her breakthrough and understands what “water” is. At that point, we see Helen “seeing” water as an object and a word on the page. It reminds me a bit of what Dash Shaw did when minds got tangled up in Bodyworld. Lambert goes big in the panels where Keller’s world opens up as she pats everything in the hall and demands to know what things are called. It’s a use of language that is visual in her own mind’s eye, even as she can’t see. There’s a fantastic sequence in the book where Helen and Annie are sitting under a tree, and Helen starts imagining foxes, dogs, and pigs cavorting about in the water and climbing up a tree. Her relentless thirst to understand her environment allows her to imagine what might happen in it.
That leads to a controversy where a short story she wrote for Anagnos as a birthday present is later shown to be a near-copy of a previously published work. Though Sullivan claims that she never read the story to Helen and Helen claims it “came from my mind […] from Helen,” the controversy proved damaging to Anagnos, the school, and Sullivan. The real tragedy, which Lambert discusses in his endnotes, is that Helen found herself unable to trust her own thoughts as her own and as a result never wrote fiction again. He deals with that issue subtly as the book ends, as Annie helps Helen understand why she suddenly feels hot and then cool while riding in a carriage.
While the book is driven by its dialogue, Lambert packs each page with background eye pops and subtle visual cues. For example, Helen’s self-image subtly changes as time goes on, acquiring a mouth and eyes. When she’s being interrogated as to her potential plagiarism, her self-image starts to regress. Lambert also uses background details for laughs, like a page where Sullivan winds up in mud as Helen relentlessly asks her about where babies come from. Lambert has always possessed that sort of flourish as part of his visual storytelling vocabulary, to the point that some of his comics were more flourish than actual story. In this case, all of his visual pyrotechnics were used in service of the story and in fact proved crucial in telling the story. One could see this coming from Lambert given the increasing narrative complexity and ambiguity of some of his recent comics, but he takes that to another level by making this assignment his own while obviously scrupulously researching it and breathing new life into a familiar story.