Only the wrecking balls loom large. Massive, buoyant and colorful, they careen across the sky a little too close for comfort, balloons in reverse hurtling from heaven to scrape the ground. The playful movements of the wrecking balls nonetheless have weight, afforded three-dimensionality by thick colors and strong shading.
Little else in The Structure Is Rotten, Comrade is afforded such consistent definition by artist Yann Kebbi. Buildings often appear defined yet out of focus, colors felt and minutia observed but rendered in vague impressionistic scribbles. People are at times little more than weightless outlines themselves, near invisible. The Yerevan of Viken Berberian and Kebbi’s graphic novel only comes into focus when its protagonist, the naively self-important capitalist architect Frunz decides something is worth paying attention. By this elegant conceit the comic attempts to access the brutalist land developer’s bland vision of beauty while remaining a beautiful book itself.
Frunz’s vision cannot see the beauty of Yerevan hinted at in Kebbi’s illustrations, his program for the city aiming to tear down historic, Communist-inflected architecture in favor of the erection of sky-scrapers (this sort of double entendre is evoked more than once by novelist Berberian’s punny script - says Frunz of the Empire State Building: “It’s defiantly erect. Uncompromisingly capitalist. A testament that... size does matter. Bend over Stalin -- here comes the scraper”). Eager to impress his father, the legendary titan of industry dubbed “Mr. Cement,” Frunz zealously oversteps his abilities, pushing families out of their homes with nothing to their name but stools to sit on (expensive, brand-name stools, mind you), to pave the way for bigger, taller, more “Western” buildings that will boast a multitude of bathrooms.
Frunz can’t really see the city he’s destroying slowly, but the place snaps into focus when it starts wrecking itself quickly, a violent revolution which threatens to spit him out of Armenia. The revolution clearly endeavors to overthrow the political establishment, but from Frunz’s perspective its aim is solely to reject his and his father’s designs for Yerevan, citizens taking up arms against homes with three toilets, tanks emblazoned with the slogan FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION. Pitifully, pathetic while still inspiring pathos, Frunz squirms out of his country and to Paris, his ideal city. His life will be cushy, his ill deeds unpunished. Yet for Frunz it may be a fate worse than death, now living as a subject of the capitalist machine he once controlled, an assimilated foreigner. It’s the city he loves the most, the culture he wished to impose on Yerevan, and now this place will be his purgatory, the proverbial 300 tons of cement an old homeless man curses him to be buried under.
Berberian and Kebbi create a delicate balance in centering their narrative on an abuser of the capitalist system. Frunz’s story is treated sympathetically while at the same time the bland evil of his ideas and actions is made painfully clear. To explore this perspective is brave, and yet this choice also hampers the narrative at times. With the people and places Frunz ignores rendered out of focus, the scale of and humanity of Frunz’s cruelty and even the intensity of the people’s retaliation is effectively muted and distant. It makes the work less upsetting to read, but perhaps this is not a good thing. And while I appreciate Berberian’s devotion to humor and word play, it often softens the impact of moments that could have some real intensity. Humor is a big part of tragedy, but not when you can’t peel back the curtain, and often the riffing tone of The Structure is Rotten raises the curtain only slightly just to show you the dark truths the authors are comfortable with you seeing, batting your hand away as you attempt to explore further.
This tendency to evade discomfort is most evident in the comics’ troubling depictions of women. For the first half of the book, an unnamed, large breasted female architecture student who wears a shirt with the phrase “LESS IS MORE” written across the chest (very funny guys) acts as a foil to Frunz, joking about sleeping her way up to the top while Frunz ogles her in detail that forces the reader to participate. That she exists in the narrative only as a one-dimensional sex object to attract Frunz’s attention is not exactly a problem - she is clearly intended as a critique of both the sexism inherent in capitalism and the unexamined sexual frustruation behind Frunz’s domineering plans for the city - but that she dips out of the story completely once she has served this function after weighing so heavily on the first hundred pages makes her presence in the work feel like an indulgent exercise in misogyny justified by baking in a generic critique.
Ultimately, the greatest shortcoming of The Structure is Rotten, Comrade is that its intentionally unflinching portrayal of its protagonist refrains from any ugliness that might actually be surprising or upsetting. Frunz is a harmful person and clearly warped and repressed by his capitalist power, yet in today’s world this character seems more like a nostalgic antique than anything. You can go on Instagram or Twitter right now and find people very similar to Frunz expressing far more naive and grotesque beliefs and prejudices without much thought. The Frunz’s of the real world are deeply disturbed people, and they’re not only taking out their frustrations on cities, they’re tearing the planet to shreds. Berberian and Kebbi try to capture this calamitous sickness in an admirable way, but by keeping it in the confines of a bookstore-appropriate message they are undone.
Is it possible to create a work of literature that explores and even indulges in the innermost thoughts of a crypto-fascist with a delicate balance of compassion, fascination and condemnation? Yes. William H. Gass wrote several, RIP. Is it fair of me to hold the The Structure is Rotten, Comrade, a legitimately impressive debut graphic novel, to the same standards as my favorite literary fiction? Perhaps not. I liked this book a great deal and I think it deserves the praise it is certain to receive as it brushes up against the outskirts of the mainstream literary press. I cannot understate how lovely Kebbi’s art is, the naive pastels balancing a practiced clarity, how sharp and earnest Berberian’s writing is at times. But this is a comic that is overtly positioned as a literary work, and as much as I want to congratulate and celebrate the achievement of that ambition I don’t think we can neglect as readers to demand better from art that’s aiming for greatness. A towering work which delights the eye can still be built on shaky foundations.