Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review: Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel

Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel by Jules Feiffer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nobody draws like Jules Feiffer. I offer that, initially, as simple fact rather than evaluation. You can recognize his drawings instantly, the loose, flying lines and the sense of movement distinguish his work from every other “political cartoonist” (he was never quite that), humorist (again, not quite his bag), or illustrator I can think of. When he gives us a drawing, he does something no one else seems quite to be doing.

I know his work best, like most people I imagine, from his Village Voice years, and I think of his quintessential work as the “dance for spring” strips, where a girl moves from one dancer’s pose to another talking about some of the good and troubling things of the moment. They’re great to look at, and they seem perfectly representative of their moments.

So here is Feiffer trying something different. Like Will Eisner – or less impressively Joe Kubert – he’s a life-long cartoonist moving to a late-life graphic novel statement, one drawn from the world of his childhood. (Maybe not entirely by coincidence as well, all three of those are Jewish cartoonists.)

This story is tangled and dark. We get a dead husband and a woman who has to take a job as secretary and sometime-date to a boozy, thuggish private eye. We get a girl so angry at her mother that she determines to “kill” her by shoplifting and shocking her propriety. We get a mysterious older woman who shows up and is often unable to speak. And then, after a break, we resume the stories in the Pacific front of World War II.

Individual strands of the story are compelling. In impressive noir fashion, none of these characters is innocent or pure. Each has reasons for us to criticize her, and each is motivated by dark impulses.

The big trouble is that it’s hard to keep the story lines separate. Because Feiffer is so good at movement, his characterization suffers. I confess, I still can’t tell two of the main characters apart: one is intent on shocking her mother, and another is worried that the hit radio show she’s produced – based loosely on her friendship with Artie as a boy – may get undone if the now grown-up Artie tries to sue. Still another is determined to see that her lover, dancing ex-boxer Eddie Longo, makes it big in Hollywood. Of those three, two are the same. I think it’s the first two, but I can’t be sure because Feiffer’s lines move so dramatically that all of his young women look like one another.

There’s a lot to admire here, and I think I will likely take a stab at the sequel, Cousin Joseph, since it seems to venture into the Jewish gangster world, but it’s also frustrating to find so little editorial help in distinguishing the characters. This is Feiffer’s art, and I admire it enough to want it as he thinks he ought to deliver it, but how hard would it have been to include a “cast of characters” page, one where we could see clear drawings of the characters and get capsule descriptions of each?

I suspect it’s easier to get through this without my confusion if you read it straight through. This has been my several pages a night bedside reading, though, so I’ve had to get reacquainted with characters over a more extended time. My bad, perhaps, but the work seems as if it ought to be accessible even spread out.

Anyway, there’s enough going on here, enough to make it stand out from what so many others are doing, that I urge you at least to pick it up at a bookstore and see how different the look and feel is. If Feiffer can manage to slow things down just a little – if he can more effectively distinguish one character from another – then I think the second and third parts of the promised trilogy could really be something.

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