To Have & To Hold

To Have & To Hold

In Graham Chaffee’s Big Wheels, published by Fantagraphics in 1993, the narrative is handed off from one character to another as they pass by each other or interact throughout a single day in the city. This is a timeless device in short fiction, films, and comics which allows the artist to focus on whatever catches their fancy and avoid that which doesn’t. In Chaffee’s To Have and To Hold, published by Fantagraphics in 2017, he returns to the same device, but uses it exactly once and employs it towards different ends. Rather than using it as a trick to avoid a cohesive full-length story, its in service to the themes and character arcs.

Plenty of fiction has multiple protagonists at different times throughout the narrative. But to abandon one and fully switch to a second is rare. Psycho, the 1960 proto-slasher blockbuster, did something like this with a major and unexpected switch from one protagonist to another. Robert Bloch, the author of the novel from which Hitchcock’s movie was adapted, used this trick often in his fiction. He would introduce a sympathetic character and then kill them off. Chaffee, though, does something different. He doesn’t kill off a sympathetic character but rather a character slowly over the course of the story is revealed to be less and less sympathetic at the same time as a second character is moving through an opposite character arc becoming more central to the story and the reader's sympathies. Similar to Psycho, the narrative can only fully switch to the new protagonist by the death of one at the hands of the other.

The reader is first introduced to Lonnie, a man whose ambitions outpace his intelligence. He’s working as a low paid security guard after having been fired from the police force for  theft of police evidence. When he discovers his wife is sleeping with a loans manager of a bank, and that his security firm has a relationship with the same bank, he takes advantage of the "opportunity" to plan and execute a bank robbery.

Lonnie is a middle-class schlub, but unlike the convention of that particular crime fiction archetype, his dead-end job is the direct result of his own actions. Crime fiction is filled with victims and losers rushing to meet their fate head-on. Losers get in over their heads and never have a chance while their sad story plays out to the end of the line. Lonnie however is neither a dupe nor fatalistic. He's an arrogant crook who is smugly convinced he's smarter than everyone else despite all the evidence to the contrary. Neither is he insecure, he is full of bravado which he may not be able to back up, but it isn't faked. He is overconfident from the jump and thinks he is going to pull off the heist right up to the end as he is forced to take increasingly riskier and riskier moves.

Lonnie's wife is also a twist on what might be expected of her character. While she does cheat on her husband, she doesn’t fulfill the typical crime genre expectations of an adulterous woman. She is duplicitous and forces her husband, Lonnie, into a crisis of masculinity, but she isn’t a schemer. She rejects being controlled by a man, but she never rejects domesticity. Instead her resentment stems from being forced out of the house by her husband to earn additional income as he isn’t able to provide enough for the both of them. Effectively she is forced into action by the failure of her husband to meet his expectations for a traditional patriarchal family.

Cuckolded husbands are a dime a dozen in crime fiction, and especially in classic-era film noir. Chaffee isn’t paying specific homage to film noir specifically, but any fiction with crime and an assertive woman chafing against her marital situation, especially a woman who overtly asserts her sexuality, is going to be viewed as existing within a lineage. But Kate never considers using her own wits to improve her situation. She doesn’t scheme nor does she lure any suckers into schemes like countless femme fatales have done. In fact she only takes action and shoots Lonnie as a case of self-defense in a last ditch effort to save her own life. Kate isn’t a femme fatale. She doesn’t serve as an agent of change for Lonnie or any man. Nor does she speak to any anxieties around uncertain or shifting gender roles. Indeed it’s Lonnie’s actions and his failure to fulfill traditional gender expectations which lead to his death and Kate’s freedom.

Not to make this sound overly self-aware or meta-fictional, none of this actually reads like Chaffee set out to recontexualize or update crime fiction archetypes as commentary on the cliches themselves. Rather it feels like he tried to flesh out these archetypes into actual three-dimensional characters, and by doing this he ends up speaking more to modern concerns today than the time period he's depicting. The end result is a story about a marriage of a man who believes he's married to a shrew and his wife who realizes she is married to a loser and the actions that lead her to finally take independence for herself.

In Rob Kirby’s review of Good Dog, Chaffee’s 2013 book, Kirby described Chaffee as a “solid craftsman” comparing his style to Dean Haspiel or Josh Neufeld, which is pinpoint accurate positioning of what his drawings look like. Ng Suat Tong, in his review of the same book, gets closer to the cumulative effect of his cartooning, describing how Chaffee “evok[es] time, place and character; [and] the gentle rhythms of a nostalgia associated with the early to mid twentieth century.”  All of Chaffee’s comics appear to be set around the same time and place. The men wear suits, the busses have rounded corners, and the city is free of glass skyscrapers. Supporting characters from previous books show up again in the latest and the effect constitutes an expanding if unassuming Chaffee-verse. To Have & To Hold places the year specifically in 1962 with a movie theatre marquee advertising Dr. No. In fact Chaffee gets specific about many other things beside the date, which is in contrast to his earlier work. This is the first time he has tackled a long-form narrative with humans rather than animals, and as part of that he draws them in different locations as required by the plot. Humans interacting with the mundane objects of everyday life as well as with each other in crowds and in bars and in kitchens is a step up in difficulty from his previous work. It feels as if it was built on top of the foundation he laid for himself over the last 25+ years.

A marriage ripped apart by lust and greed is a bedrock of crime fiction going back to at least James Cain in the 1930's, but it's never been done like this.  The woman has a sharp tongue and is carrying on an affair and yet there is no moralizing or comeuppance for her.  It's not particularly a feminist take on a crime-story but a reckoning with the tropes and a depth of character greater than most wives are ever afforded in a story about a guy planning and executing a heist.  If you think crime comics aren't for you because the genre tropes seem tired and shallow, I would suggest that's the fault of the comics you've been reading and not the genre itself.