I became interested in this book when I saw it in passing in Angouleme last year. It had won the ‘revelation’ award the previous year, which sounds self-explanatory. But its look drew me to it. There are now enough divisions and subdivisions of comics, that the general idea of a comic may be suggested immediately by its appearance. You can see a book from a few yards away and get a sense of what it is about. Indeed it often feels that there are only a few things that it can be about. And why should it be otherwise? So it’s autobiographical, what the book trade has been calling ‘graphic memoir,’ because ‘novel’ was confusing them, somebody somewhere having decided that a novel by law must be fiction.
When I heard that Fantagraphics were doing an English language version I put my dibs in early for a review copy. Since then, the editor and translator of the book has died, so that when I see his cool and intelligent touch all through it I get a wistful feeling that I may not have had in other circumstances. This must be among Kim Thompson’s last contributions to the collective library of comics. The world of comics will miss him very much. It occurs to me that he would have been working on this when he wrote, in the context of a blog discussion to which I was also throwing in my two cents, “Even today, the fiction/autobio breakdown tilts far heavier toward autobio among women than men.” If Kim, as an editor and publisher, said it, then it would have to be true. I have this at the top of an otherwise empty document because I meant to examine the statement closely to see if I could figure out why it should be so. I may still try. In the meantime, it is a myskery, as Popeye would say.
My first impression about the work when I sat down with it was that it was heavy going at 464 pages. And from an artist I wasn’t familiar with. But effort was rewarded. I found myself moved quite profoundly by the end, when the whole thing came together and revealed its shape. Then it was like a person who came to stay and I didn’t realize how much I was enjoying their company until after they’d left.
The book works as a thing in its entirety, consistency being the governing virtue. I cannot point to a witty passage that expresses an idea just so, or a look, or the record of a place that reminds me of a visit or made me want to visit. It is not an easy thing to be consistent over so many pages, and a great deal of ground is covered in this book, from Austria all the way to Sicily, with all parts rendered with the simple but necessary authority.
Being ‘on the road’ is the motivating factor in its machinery. Early on there are the hazards of ill-considered cross-country shortcuts to avoid border checkpoints. Realizing that I have only ever lived in island states, this quite intrigued me. A good book takes you somewhere, and if you haven’t been there before, all the better. Later there is the annoyance of being locked up in a foreign jail. At every stage of the way we know no more than the protagonist. Navigating the drawn universe of an artist helps this principle. We get no clues from things glimpsed sideways. We know only what she shows us.
The book has its invisible structure in mind from the start, and we’re surprised to find elements of grand drama, though much disguised. There is danger, and betrayal. And also a sense of stepping unwittingly into the middle of important world events, but that the world is not as huge as one thought. The other players in it, while they may appear to have taken it upon themselves to side with the forces of some kind of social or religious or other oppression, are as lost as anybody if they should ever choose to admit it.
The title I take to be a no-confidence vote in the concept of tomorrow, which might be ironic since the style is forever finding hope and a passing joy in details such as the way the author observes to her own healthy fleshiness. The back cover blurb helpfully leads us to believe it is a ‘coming of age novel.’ While this cannot be said to be untrue, the term always leaves me with the feeling that I just witnessed some ‘potted thinking.’ It implies a coming to terms with the expectations of the adult world. The whole project, again, is at odds with this. There’s a feeling that the protagonist would as soon set it, the conventional world, on fire, though the author may be more accommodating. There is a rejection of the organization of the world, from organized faith to organized crime. It is about the pursuit of nihilism as a route to integrity. Ulli Lust has the intelligence to look at her life and make a book of it.
On the other hand the book is organized like a book, with chapters, and that appendix at the end. Of the throng of people whom she passes or connects with in this odyssey, only two are worthy of a positive mention in this appendix. One got a skull tattooed on his back. In fact he got Ulli to do it for him. The style of it is unimportant, though of course Ulli has already made herself known to the people in the story, and those reading the book, as an artist. An appendix in a comic is unlikely to be a repository of extra information. It’s usually an “And you know what, out of all those people I just told you about…” like a movie that ends with an account just before the end credits of what happened to all the characters after the final scene. It’s usually a transparent way of letting you know somebody got their just rewards. Preferring a spoken style, I would probably put it all in a rush to the last panel and just say out of all those people I told you about, this one succumbed to the world’s baloney and oddly, this other one was too innocent to ask the big question in the first place, this other guy gets top marks and I’ll tell you a secret because it’s all a long time ago and I see now the things that are important all get reshuffled and renamed and now I have a passport and buy a ticket instead of being one of those punk kids who always gets in through the slats of the fence without paying. But everybody has their own way of doing things, and leaving the reader wanting to back into the book with fresh eyes is always good.