A few years after the events that begin Andy Warner’s excellent new graphic novel, Spring Rain, and a year before the events that take place at its conclusion, I went to see a psychologist for the first time. I had been laid off from my job and undergone a major career crisis thanks to making a stupid mistake; I was broke, alone, directionless, living somewhere I didn’t want to live, and generally feeling like shit. My savings and retirement had been wiped out by the economic collapse of 2008, and I was in great despair about the future, with no confidence that the country’s political leadership would do much to correct the myriad failure of its predecessors. The psychologist would listen to me talk – about politics, about the economy, about my sense of dread for what was coming – and then he would tell me that it wasn’t really politics that was making me depressed; it was my own mind. I didn’t know what to think about this; wasn’t it possible that I was genuinely worried about the state of the world around me? What I didn’t realize at the time is that mental health issues and external traumas like war, politics, and finance don’t exist in separate realities, but feed into each other, each making the other harder to cope with.
Spring Rain is very much a memoir about this process, about the way the troubles of the world seem more troublesome when one is already dealing with emotional difficulties, and how those same emotional difficulties can make the state of society seem more menacing, creating a self-reinforcing feedback loop that can drag even those keenly attuned to it into an awful state. On its surface, it’s Warner’s memories of a college semester spent overseas in the city of Beirut just after the invasion of Iraq; this diverse and beautiful Lebanese metropolis was just beginning to recover from decades of sectarian conflict and civil war when U.S. forces threw the entire region back into chaos. (One of the most telling through-lines of the story is Warner’s careful observation of the way America is perceived by non-Americans.) Warner, reeling from a frustrating breakup, travels there to study Arabic literature, and falls in with a motley group of other students. This mix of locals and foreigners do what college students do: they drink, they take drugs, they fuck in various combinations and expressions, and they worry about what’s going to happen to the country. And Warner very quickly starts losing his mind.
What is the nature of madness? It’s a question far too great for such a humble story, let alone a review of same, but Warner asks himself the same questions anyone in his circumstances might ask in those moments when they’re able to push through the flak being thrown up by their own brains: where did this come from? Where will it lead? How do I deal with it? How much of the skillfully portrayed hallucinations and terrors that come to him unexpectedly – a beheaded corpse outside his door, a swarm of insects hovering around someone at a sidewalk café, the recurring appearance of odd street people – can be attributed to drugs, how much to mental illness, how much to the imagination of a creative mind, how much to the mere fact of being young and alone in a foreign land wracked by political tension? Warner treats the question fairly, while recognizing it has no easy answer; he lets us see through the lens of his family, his friends, his living situation, and the greater backdrop of world affairs, neither overdramatizing the situation nor letting himself off the hook for his occasional bad behavior and insensitivity.
So, too, do we see the state of Beirut. Spring Rain is a highly personal book and not a definitive history of Lebanon, but Warner gives us just enough background on the country’s rough past and the political and cultural place it occupies in the Middle East to make us understand both the intricate complexities of a nation that has too often been a pawn in power games played by others and the fact that there is no one position, no stance or belief among the citizenry that is universally shared or unquestioningly accepted. The central event of Spring Rain, from a political standpoint, is the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri – but even this critical turning point is lost in the morass of internecine conflict, just another high-profile killing that is never definitively solved, one among dozens. When Warner complains to a fellow American student that he thinks Beirut is driving him crazy, she responds that “A bomb going off every three days is enough to make anybody crazy.”
Warner’s art is an odd blend of the cartoony and the photorealistic; it didn’t immediately click for me, but it’s well-suited for the narrative. Joe Sacco is the most obvious touchstone, but he lacks Sacco’s daring layout and design talents; however, his excellent use of backgrounds creates a powerful sense of place, and his attention to detail gives weight to even the smallest aspects of the story. This comes in handy particularly in the meta-referential parts of the book, where he recalls the diaries he kept of the events that are unfolding on the page in front of us, and whether or not the memories he has of those Times Square with what he wrote about them – or failed to write about them – when they were actually happening. And it is through the use of recurring motifs, such as a bug-eyed and silent wanderer in his neighborhood, a pair of nearly-starved dogs in a cage outside of his building, and the moments where he engages in bizarre and self-destructive rituals, where the meaning of the book is most clearly articulated.
Eventually, Warner returns home, and there is something of a shock when he reveals that so much frenzy and froth has taken place in only five months. He writes the book we are reading; his bad breakup is resolved; and, eventually, he returns to Beirut years later, a chance encounter with one of his old college friends awkwardly illustrating the difference of space, time and circumstance. The world has kept turning, and though his life and his mind have settled into a kind of happiness, the ambiguity persists over the more intense and dangerous events that play out behind and in front of his eyes. At one point in the story, Warner asks Munir, a Lebanese communist, if “the systems” wouldn’t just stop a revolution from happening. “The systems?!?” Munir asks with incredulity. “Are the systems working here? Are the systems working anywhere?” It’s a question that all of Spring Rain asks throughout its length, both of the world outside and the world inside.