REVIEWS

Taxi! Stories from the Back Seat

Taxi! is a short graphic novel about four cab rides taken by Holland-based cartoonist and animator Aimée de Jongh over the last six years: from her then-home in Los Angeles to LAX to pick up a friend (2014); from Jakarta’s airport to an Ibis hotel (2017); from Reagan International Airport in Washington D.C, to the Marriott North Bethesda Hotel and the Small Press Expo (2017); and from a Parisian street to another Ibis hotel, “the one near Gare du Nord” (2018). These rides aren’t presented in chronological order, however. Each follows a beginning / middle / end trajectory, but de Jongh cuts among them with disregard for the years in which each cab ride took place. The opening pages of Taxi! feature de Jongh picked up in Los Angeles (2014), Paris (2018), Jakarta (2017) and Washington (2017) in that order, and then the story unfolds in short scenes that scramble years and locations until she arrives at her various destinations by the end of the book.

Though de Jongh’s method may seem random, she brings aesthetic unity to Taxi! by establishing a series of motifs that repeat, sometimes in altered fashion, across each journey. One running joke: each time de Jongh mentions that she’s from Holland, the cabbies in all the cities except LA respond with “Cruijff!”--a reference to world-class Dutch soccer player and coach Johan Cruijff. (All of her cabbies are male, and the L.A. driver listens to radio news about the N.B.A. instead.) More serious are the off-handed mentions of tragedies past and present, as when de Jongh’s Jakarta driver reminds her that Holland “occupied Indonesia for 300 years,” and when de Jongh’s route through Paris takes her past the offices of Charlie Hebdo, with “#JeSuisCharlie” graffiti still stenciled on the walls.

De Jongh is adept at this juggling of motifs across hundreds of panels. Much of my pleasure in reading Taxi! came from following these motifs throughout the book, and in pondering how her non-chronological structure reveals unexpected connections between two consecutive scenes. About one-third into Taxi!, de Jongh is stuck in a Paris traffic jam, and a right-sided page ends with a panel of her cabbie wondering, “Have you ever seen a city this crowded?” Then on the page turn: a packed image of traffic congestion in Jakarta (above) much worse than Paris traffic, a flashback that drops us into de Jongh’s memories.

The conclusion of Taxi!—not counting a five-page epilogue—is another bravura splash page, as her French driver delivers de Jongh to the wrong hotel: “Wait a minute. I’m staying at the Ibis budget hotel. This is the regular Ibis.” And the book ends where it began, with de Jongh hailing a taxi (above).

This page is a reverse establishing shot: de Jongh signals the end of our immersion in her narrative by increasing the distance between us and her autobiographical protagonist. This aerial shot also displays her skills as a cartoonist. The buildings, fully three-dimensional, capture the erratic jumble of Parisian streets. On her blog, de Jongh discusses her trip to Oklahoma to take pictures and research images for her upcoming 1930s Dust Bowl graphic novel Days of Sand, and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that she worked from photo references for landscape-centric panels like this in Taxi! But her art never feels like a stilted replication of a photograph. De Jongh’s contrast between thin pen lines (note the diagonals representing rain, some in white and most in black, at the forefront of the image) and chunky brush strokes (note the thick slashes that define bottom of the tree in the lower center of the panel) make the image vibrate with life.  

I recommend Taxi!, but I find one serious flaw with the book: de Jongh’s plotting and art are stronger than her characterizations. Page three of the book opens with de Jongh’s hand in close-up as she hails a cab to LAX. Once the car arrives, she hops in the back seat and cheerfully explains that she’s picking up a dark-skinned friend who habitually faces scrutiny from TSA officers. Her bald cabbie is unresponsive and hostile, though, ignoring de Jongh as he chats on his phone and listens to the radio. It’s only a call-in show about the safety of Uber rides that finally jump-starts a conversation between them. De Jongh then apologies for being too talkative—she explains that she goes days without speaking, presumably because she works alone at her drawing board, so when she sees someone, she “just can’t stop”—and the cabbie acknowledges that he feels fatigue from relentless interaction with the public. They part as friends, with de Jongh’s hailing gesture revisited at the end of the drive as a goodbye wave.

What are my objections to a humble, genial story like this? One is context: the other three stories in Taxi! follow the same rough trajectory, with de Jongh’s bright disposition prompting a cabbie to become more “emotionally available,” and this set-up, unrealistic and a little self-congratulatory, doesn’t hold up when repeated in all of Taxi’s trips. I have trouble trusting an autobiographical story where the author is always admirable and empathetic.

De Jongh’s problems with characterization also influence how she draws people in Taxi! While her backgrounds are complex and convincing (those Parisian buildings!), de Jongh draws herself in a cartoony, “masking effect” style that reinforces the two-dimensionality of her stand-in. For much of the book, she sits in the backseat grinning, engrossed in animated conversations with the cabbies, though when the L.A. driver ignores her, she sulks, slouches, broods. The emotions of de Jongh-in-the-comic are always legible, which is fine when your characters don’t need to be developed—when they’re stereotypes driving a four-panel comic strip gag, for instance—but this surface expression of exaggerated emotions is less effective at capturing the hidden feelings, feigned indifferences, and awkward moments of a conversation with a stranger. At one point during the D.C. ride, de Jongh’s cabbie guesses her age—“I think you’re 28 years old!”—and when de Jongh exclaims “I am 28!” the cabbie explains his reasoning:

You called yourself an artist. That means you know you’re not just playing around. You’re still young…but you’re old enough to know what you want in life. And therefore…you are 28!

The driver is right: de Jongh is clearly an artist, particularly in her careful plotting, smart page breakdowns, and ebullient cartooning. But she’s also young, and her ability to create three-dimensional people should grow as she crafts more graphic novels. One previous project was de Jongh’s collaboration with Belgian writer Zidrou on Blossoms in Autumn (2018), a story about a sexual and emotional romance between two older people, and Days of Sand will chronicle the experiences of Depression-era Dust Bowl migrants. Her willingness to identify with and visually render different people should prevent her from falling into solipsistic autobio traps and will hopefully deepen her characterizations. After reading Taxi!, I cautiously look forward to more of de Jongh’s comics.

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