Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Kill My Mother

Jules Feiffer cuts a large figure in the world of comics. He was an apprentice to Will Eisner in the 1940s, a time when comics were in a nascent state. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his cartoon work, all but created the genre of alt-weekly comics with his work for The Village Voice, was a comics historian, wrote the screenplay for the classic film Carnal Knowledge, and illustrated classic books like The Phantom Tollbooth. But until now, he had not written or drawn a graphic novel.
And this is some debut. It has lots of elements of 1940s noir films, which I guess should not be a surprise as the book is dedicated in part to Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, John Huston, Billy Wilder, and Howard Hawks. It stars the prerequisite private detective, though he is pretty much useless, a drunken lout who tries to be a womanizer and who seems to enjoy wearing women's panties. The folks who actually do things are all women, and what roles they play. There is Elsie, a young widow who decides to work as a secretary for a PI so she can investigate her policeman husband's murder. There is her daughter, Annie, who resents her absent mother while bossing around her friend Artie. There is a mysterious blond who hires the PI to find a tall, blond woman whom she resembles.

And of course, this being a noir tale, there are lots of scenes in seedy place like apartment buildings, smoke filled cabarets, and boxing matches.
The story is split into two parts, one in 1933 in Bay City, and the other in 1943 in Hollywood, where we see what has transpired in ten years. The tone of the second half is much different, as we see the movers and shakers behind movies, radio programs, and USO tours. Their world may seem cleaner and more civilized, but there are still bitter undercurrents of jealousy, greed, and potential murder. It is like having a movie and its sequel in one work, and I think that this graphic novel works extremely well in terms of its narrative. In fact, I think this is a book with all kinds of details that demands to be read and then re-read.
Part of what makes the story interesting is how it is laid out. I think that the panels (and at times, lack of panels) are constructed in interesting and fluid ways. There is something experimental about them in how they attempt to track how readers' eyes will move across pages. The sketchiness of those movements are a strength but also sometimes a detriment. The biggest issue I had with this book was that some of the characters look alike, but that seems partly the purpose in a book about changing societal roles and shifting identities.

Feiffer makes a great hash from his many influences, including dimestore novels, old comic strips, and noir films, as well as his years spent as Will Eisner's apprentice. This book is sort of a paean to those modes of telling stories, but it is also a commentary and critique of them, playing with their conventions and making something vital. The story is entrancing, and the artwork is provocative, ranging from paneled scenes to full page splashes that are surprising effecting and poignant. You can read more about Feiffer's influences and choices for making this book in this profile.

All the reviews I have read about this book regard it as a work to be reckoned with, even if they were not always uniformly positive. In the New York Times Sunday Book Review Laura Lippman called it "terrific" and wrote that it was "a thoughtful meditation on female identity and whether the not-so-simple art of murder can ever be defended as a moral necessity." Alan Cheuse called it "a darkly drawn confection." Dash Shaw was more critical of the book's layouts, calling them "herky-jerky" and summing up his review, "It looks like it was fun for him to make. I wish it was fun for me to read."

Kill My Mother was published by W.W. Norton & Company, and they provide a link to previews and more here.

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