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Monday, February 28, 2011

Daytripper


With the blog up and running once more, I thought it was about time to add some brand new original writing to go with the stuff that I take from my "day job" at channel24 and those slightly embarrassing but fun epinions reviews that - and I don't know if you've noticed this - tend to go on a bit. And then a bit more.

I could seldom think of a better way to start than with a review of Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba's Daytripper. This 10-issue comic book series has just been released as a very affordable trade paperback by DC Vertigo and there's just no two ways about it: this is a book that deserves to cross the great divide between the somewhat niche world of comics and the significantly less niche world of pop culture. Daytripper doesn't merely belong at the top of the New York Times bestselling graphic novels list (and, seriously, how insanely awesome is it that the freakin' New York Times has a list for the best selling graphic novels) but deserves to top their general fiction list as well.

I say this despite long been adamant that comics are, in fact, not literature and don't really deserved to be classified that way. Now, before all you crazy fanboys ("it takes one to know one, she cried!") come at me with your pitchforks, torches and Absolute Sandman hardcovers, let me just make one thing clear. Comics (or comix or graphic novels for those of you who shudder and shrink away at the merest hint on spandex and capes) are a valid and vital artform and they can be one of the absolute best media in which to tell a story. However, much like cinema, radio plays, novels and television, it is a storytelling medium with its own strengths and weaknesses that are, by and large, very different from prose novels and short stories.    

I know, I know, I know: what's with the digression? I'm sure you're all massively interested in my take on the comic book as an artform and my being a ridiculous stickler for separating comics from prose literature but what the hell does any of this have to do with Daytripper?

Everything, as it so happens. For a start the only way to truly earn Daytripper as wide an audience as possible is by putting it in bookstores, right next to the latest fiction releases. Sad but true. More importantly though, Daytripper is a story with the kind of depth, richness and humanity that most people associate with the most literate of novels - but it does this by staying absolutely true to the form and language of the comic book. It is, very simply, a shining example of its medium and is a perfect showcase for just how much can be done with, as Will Eisner called it, sequential art storytelling.

The story of Daytripper is a very simple one. It tells the life story of a fictional Brazilian writer named Bras de Oliva Domingos. The story may allude to the miraculous when describing his birth and he may become a rather successful writer as his life goes on but beyond that, there is little that makes Bras' life any more special or extraordinary than anyone else's. This makes his story far more universal and while it's doubtful that anyone will relate to every single aspect of Bras' story, I would imagine that it's the very rare individual who can't find anything within the book to grab hold onto emotionally.

Of course, however resonant this sort of story might be, it can easily become one that drowns in its own mundaneness. "Slice of life" stories can be wonderful but they can just as often be uninspired, unimaginative and all together a bit too nasal-gazing for their own good. The true masterstroke of Daytripper is that, through the storytelling possibilities of comic books and an ingenious conceit that grows naturally from the profession of the lead character, they brothers Moon and Ba avoid this trap entirely.    

Rather than conventionally telling Bras' story in chronological order and trying to fit decades of a person's life into 10 quite brief chapters, the Moon and Ba go a different route. Each of the first eight chapters of the book deal with a day in Bras' life, day's would play a pivotal party in defining who he would be from that point on. This leaves the final two chapters to wrap everything up. Here's the real genius part, though: When we first meet bras, he is an obituary writer for a small newspaper and every chapter ends with an obituary to Bras himself - obituaries that are written because Bras "dies" at the end of each day.

Now, how one interpret these "deaths" is entirely up to the reader. You can see them as nothing more than devices that allow for those all important obituaries; you can see them as literal deaths and allow for a certain amount of magic to mix in with this otherwise (mostly) grounded story or you can see each death as a metaphor for the closing of each chapter of Bras' life or even as a metaphor for the "death" of each day that goes past as each of us race through life.

What does matter, though, is that these "deaths" are a brilliant storytelling device used to give the reader an almost unheard of insight into our protagonist at these different points in his life. More than that, it is genuinely thought-provoking in that it forces us as reader to consider not only what days define our lives but how we would be remembered if our life was to come to a sudden end at those points. By killing Bras at the end of each chapter, Moon and Ba give the story a level of insight, universal appeal and emotional resonance that few stories ever even adequately achieve.

Not that those final pages of each of the chapters are the only aspects of the story that works. Every chapter has a slightly different feel - occasionally even crossing genres - to reflect the complexity and constantly evolving nature of human existence. The book moves from the innocent wonders of childhood and a first kiss to the rote, mundane existence that sometimes defines adult life. It deals with lust, death, loss, young love, mature love, birth, parenthood, familial bonds, conflict between generations, career uncertainties, existential angst and more.    

Best of all though, while this is certainly present in the writing, it is the art that finally drives it home. While Ba and/ or Moon's art (it's hard to tell them apart as their styles are so complementary) is far more cartoony than it is photo-realistic, it actually represents real life far more convincingly because of that. By allowing for a certain amount of abstractness in the art, it is far easier for the reader to allow our own imaginations to bring the images on the page to life.

Besides, though the art may not be "realistic", it is certainly not lacking for detail. Both the characters and the world they inhabit are perfectly and expressively drawn. There is a strong sense of location in the book as open fields, hospital rooms, crowded cities and paradise-like beaches all have very distinct looks and, more importantly, evoke very different emotions. The characters too are very well defined. Take Bras' two main lovers, for example. The first is exotic, voluptuous and rawly sexual in her appearance, the second - Bra's soul mate - has a much softer, sweeter and much more individual countenance. The significance of his being attracted to each at a different parts of his life is something that is portrayed almost entirely through the art.

The colouring too is an invaluable storytelling tool here. Colourist Dave Stewart has long been considered one of the best - if not THE best - colour artists in comics and his work on Daytripper does nothing but solidifies this reputation. Aside for his lush, painterly work simply being beautiful aesthetically, it actually plays a big part in setting the mood. Contrast, for example, the bright, vivid colours of Bras' childhood with the muted tones of his later life. Colourists are often easy to overlook but it's impossible to discuss Daytripper without paying special attention to Stewart's sterling work here.


Daytripper is an exemplary piece of slice-of-life storytelling, a shining example of the comic book art form and a proud testament to the power of stories. Don't miss it.




*All images courtesy of Google Image but the ownership obviously belongs to DC/Vertigo Comics and Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon. No breach of copyright intended.



South African readers: Buy Daytripper from Take2 (Alternative, slightly more expensive option)

International readers: Buy Daytripper from Amazon

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