Guillaume Singelin is a young, accomplished French cartoonist, but his work has had a relatively limited release in the United States. Peow! Studio put out a collection of his sketches titled Junky as a part of a Kickstarter campaign a few years ago, but PTSD, his latest book, is his first full length graphic novel to be published in English. PTSD is a 208-page hardcover about the mental and physical ravages of war. This book got a deluxe production from First Second; each of the letters on the cover is dye-punched out of the book, showing a key illustration behind the dense jungle patterns of the cover.
PTSD is about Jun, a sniper and combat medic who has been dumped back home after a traumatic final battle in an unpopular war. She and other veterans are treated like second-class citizens by both the government and by all of the other folks that live around them. Without support, many veterans are left to homelessness or working for major gangs selling an unspecified drug. Jun struggles through each day, beset by debilitating flashbacks. The only way she can make it through the day is through drug use, and since she has no work or money, the only way she is going to get drugs is through theft or violence. Jun is not completely without support; a local food vendor named Leona refuses to ignore her, fellow veterans give assistance, and most importantly she is cared for by Red, a lovingly illustrated Shiba Inu.
In PTSD, Singelin’s drawing could best be described as “crunchy.” Singelin adopts a manga-inspired style that incorporates cartoony characters with a more realistic, messy cityscape. Each page is littered with stray marks and a high volume of thin lines. Whether the effect is to show the life of a city or the blood splatter from a gunshot wound, the result is that almost every panel is claustrophobic. His colors, which vacillate between candy-colored and more realistic, use a splotchy effect that mutes much of the color of the book and reinforces the textual disorder of Singelin’s unnamed world. In interviews Singelin notes that the look and feel of the city in PTSD is heavily influenced by his time living in Japan, and it’s clear on every page; small shops are tucked back away from major thoroughfares, and shrines with grave markers and incense burning are within walking distance of major districts. What’s remarkable about all of this is that Singelin never wavers on the amount of detail on each page. Most of the time, this pays dividends, but at times can make the comic feel a little overwhelming, a little too dense to read.
The art of PTSD is the overwhelming reason to read it, and the source of my affection for the comic. I love how this book looks. Singelin can DRAW, and some of these pages are a visual delight. PTSD calls to mind authors like Katsuhiro Otomo and Masamune Shiro, whose “crunchy” style of illustration is clearly an influence for Singelin. The busyness of the art and the character design gives me the sense that Singelin’s style is influenced just as much by Rob Liefeld as either of these Japanese greats, and ultimately I think that’s a good thing. These cartoonists set the ground level for PTSD in terms of style, modified heavily by Singelin towards the cute and cartoonish. But the clear comics influences of PTSD also reveal its true nature; a vapid, boring slog. What made Akira and Appleseed good wasn’t just the drawing. The stories were interesting, the characters complex, the themes resonant. All of that is missing in PTSD.
Take for example, the major thrust of the comic. Jun is content to fend for herself, violently acquiring pills and food if necessary. After treating a fellow veteran’s gunshot wound, Jun decides to use her military skills to take out the gang that is selling drugs and hurting her fellow veterans. This is for mostly selfish reasons; her clear desire for a direction, vengeance, and a need to treat her addiction. It’s clear she is a skilled combatant, but Singelin makes her into a John Wick-like goddess of war, crushing resistance as she fuels her need for drugs. As her vigilante action becomes more widespread, so too does the reaction by the gangs. Soon the entire city is fighting in a state of street-by-street guerilla war, Jun vs. the world. Other homeless people and veterans get caught up in the violence; the results are predictable. For some readers, this feature of PTSD will be the most enjoyable aspect of the comic. But this is just competent illustration on top of a wisp of plot, a dollop of icing on a crumb of cake.
The only narrative or structural bright spot in PTSD is the relationship between Jun and Leona, a side character who helps out the homeless population. Initially Leona offers Jun a hot meal and gets involved in her life by occasionally bringing her food. Jun pushes her away in the beginning of the book, but over time the two characters become more closely engaged. Singelin’s intentions for Leona as a character are clear; not only is she something a foil to Jun, she’s also illustrated so that she is a visual inverse to Jun. Jun’s pink hair is contrasted with Leona’s black; Jun wears an eyepatch over her right eye, while Leona wears her hair over her left. As the story progresses, Jun becomes more and more like Leona - more generous with her skills, more self-assured, more caring, less violent.
In war and its aftermath, Jun loses her identity as a human. The driving force of Jun’s pain in PTSD is her not being able to reconcile her past self as a soldier with her current situation as a homeless veteran. There’s a clear moral injury that Jun initially finds hard to overcome. When she is not able to save the people she tried to protect the most, it crushes her. Jun isolates herself from others to protect herself from that trauma, but the result is more pain and suffering. Jun’s healing, and the true arc of the comic, is Jun finding a way to become less isolated. The story of PTSD only finds its resolution when Jun is able to find her way back to her humanity. The way she does this is telling - through the act of healing instead of the killing that consumes much of the book. Building community, Singelin seems to indicate through PTSD, is part of the cure to the moral injury of war. Unfortunately, most of that messaging rings hollow, a result of half-baked character development and poor plotting.
Guillaume Singelin is not being coy with these comics; it’s clear that to some extent Singelin is criticising the American war machine. More important to Singelin is the effect that these wars have had on the soldiers that give up their mental and physical health for reasons neither understood or appreciated by the general public. Two of the major sources of conflict in PTSD, drug use and homelessness, are high amongst veterans because of the trauma of war and the lack of resources to successfully reintegrate into society and find stable housing. But Singelin’s comics are shallow. There is no depth or nuance to these portrayals, and the concept that “just being kind to people” is going to fix the structural problems of the industrial war machine, or be an effective treatment for PTSD is a staggering implication; bluntly, it’s a dewy-eyed nothing.
Despite Singelin’s great illustration, despite the flow of action, the Wickian violence, and all the trappings of a modern action movie, I found PTSD frustratingly hollow. I wanted to love this book. I do love Singelin’s cartooning, which is a deft synthesis of some of modern comics’ seminal creators. But that illustration is held up by a paper-thin plot. PTSD buckles under its own weight.