For a memoir about trauma and addiction, Travis Dandro’s King of King Court sure does call to mind Calvin & Hobbes. Dandro draws himself with a similar head of spiky hair, a small child’s body (simplified and exaggerated to have shorter arms and legs than most children the same age), a bump of a nose (although Dandro’s semicircle opens down, not up like Watterson’s) and a half-circle of a mouth when it’s open in joy. There are differences when you compare side by side. Dandro’s characters tend to have five fingers rather than the cartoonier four, and their eyes are wide and blank, a la Orphan Annie. The latter has a spooky effect. Theoretically, it allows the reader to project their own feelings onto the person in question, but in practice the empty circles feel as unemotive as the headlights of the car that also appears on the cover of Dandro’s book (or the moon that illuminates the scene). Maybe it’s a necessary distancing because the story is an intense one. Dandro meets his biological father, who has strong tendencies toward addiction and depression, as well as a hair-trigger temper. His childhood is unsettled, migratory. His family life isn’t unhappy, but fear and anger come in startling bursts, and he never quite seems to know what’s going on.
Dandro’s strengths are in his use of visual devices to communicate what all of that fear, anger and confusion feels like from the perspective of a young child. He uses extreme close-ups that often cut off parts of an object, as though something is being held up close by small hands, as with a scene in which the young Travis carries an egg from his mother to his aunt. It’s not a metaphor, and it doesn’t feel like one. It’s just a remembered moment that feels like a dream--a bunch of heavy responsibility, distraction, guilt, the experience of being very small in a very big world--and it comes right after the relating of an actual dream. They don’t feel hugely different, and maybe that’s the point?
Dandro also doesn’t leave gutters between his panels, something that contributes to a sense of immediacy and claustrophobia, especially when images run from one panel into the next. It’s a childlike way of constructing pages, and he varies panel number, shape, and placement frequently, keeping you off balance as a reader. His people aren’t traditionally realistic. They often seem drawn by a child, although not one as young as Travis is for most of the book. His “Dad Dave” has a sort of Stretch Armstrong physique, with a broad chest and muscular legs and arms, but he doesn’t feel realistically put together. The bows on his sneakers are idealized bows. His mustache and glasses seem like signifiers for a face rather than belonging to an actual individual. Travis’s mother is comparably pared down to her most basic component parts.
Dandro’s outlines are heavy and dark, but he also uses a sort of horror vacui shading to fill in large areas. Sometimes, it’s made up of fine parallel-ish straight lines. Other times, it’s a single line formed into an intense tangle, like pubic hair or a memory of carpet. Frightening moments in the book feature a lot more of this shading, partially because many of them take place at night but also because it makes you feel hemmed in, like you’re hiding in a closet from a monster, terrified to be caught. Happy scenes, like the one the book opens with, are open and bright, with room to breathe around their elements. Finally, Dandro’s use and placement of word balloons is notable. Sometimes he doesn’t encase the words at all, even when they’re not sound effects, which creates an itchy sense of inconsistency. Mostly, they take up a lot of room. It’s stressful when people are talking, including the moments when they’re happy. Long sections without words feel much more manageable. It’s as though it’s easier to process the visuals when they’re not being intruded upon by sound.
King of King Court isn’t a great book, but its failings could be intentional to some extent. Is it disjointed and confusing at times? Yes, but so was Dandro’s life at the time. Maybe he’s trying to make you feel what he felt. Are the drawings sometimes primitive? Yes, but if you’re trying to capture the feel of childhood, they make sense. Parts of it are very strong, but the imagined scenes, the ones Dandro didn’t actually witness, don’t play as well as the ones that are weirder and more closely tied to memory in their specificity. The ending just kind of happens, rather than feeling like a nice glide to a stop. But when it taps into the close observation that comes with pre-literate phases of human development, it’s at its best, opening doors in your own memory that you can’t always unlock on your own.