Comic of the Month
The first time I came across Bryan Talbot’s work was when early episodes of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright were published in the Edinburgh magazine Near Myths (which also featured a strip written and drawn by a young Grant Morrison). This (and its sequel) was only completed after many years while he also worked for 2000AD in the UK and DC Comics in America. Recently he has concentrated on graphic novels, and it would be no exaggeration to say he has become one of Britain’s most important creators in this medium, particularly with his wonderful Grandville series, with two volumes already published and another underway. His latest work is therefore not a departure from the fantasy world of Grandville, but it is certainly a detour, being a collaboration with his wife Mary and so rooted in reality as to fall under non-fiction.
Dotter of her Father’s Eyes is the story of Mary’s childhood, and in particular her relationship with her father, the noted James Joyce scholar, James Atherton. As this story unfolds, we also get a glimpse into the life of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, as well as a few pages of a contemporary framing sequence. In each of these sections Talbot adopts a different artistic style. The present day is represented in clear lines and bold (though not primary) colours. Mary’s past, beginning in the 1950s, appears in sepia tones with only the occasional hint of colour: the orange of orange juice, the red of the Eagle’s banner, a fire, a fish-tank. The intention is clear: to illuminate those moments of pleasure that glow in the memory. As her story nears the present, so colour becomes more predominant: when Bryan appears in her teens she jokes in a side note:
“Strange how it suddenly bursts into colour when Bryan appears! I wonder why.”
Lucia’s story is rendered in black and white (with a blue wash) making clear it predates Mary’s by suggesting old photographs found in a trunk in the attic – indeed her first appearance gives every indication of having been copied from a photograph.
Both stories share a sense of the father’s work being of the utmost importance, to the detriment of the daughters. Mary’s father is frequently represented by the TAP TAP TAP of his type-writer; Mary’s is the head that appears round the door. He does not take interruptions well, at one point throwing a book at her. Lucia suffers more directly, her career as a dancer sacrificed for her father. Here it is her mother who is most insistent:
“It’s some fancy ideas you’ve got now! You’ve done enough of that for today already. And here’s your poor father needing help with his correspondence.”
In both cases adolescent rebellion can be seen to fail. Lucia’s attempts to create a career for herself are frustrated by her parent’s insistence that she move to London with them, and she never recovers from the end of her relationship with Samuel Beckett and the discovery that her parents are not married. Mary’s rebellion, if it is one, is almost diametrically opposed: she defies her father’s expectations that she will go to Cambridge and instead falls pregnant and marries: however, she is now a prominent academic.
Thematically, though, the links between the two stories are fairly weak. Though book-ended with the quotation form Finnegans Wake, “My cold mad feary father,” Joyce does not come across as fearsome at all (though Nora would certainly scare me), and both fathers are rather slightly portrayed: very much as observed from the outside. Both Mary and Lucia’s stories are interesting, but for every scene where the graphic format allows a lot of information to be delivered swiftly (the picture of Mary and Bryan talking with all their shared interest illustrated above them) or dramatically (Lucia being committed to an asylum depicted as dance moves in a strait jacket – see below), there are others where you wish the depth of a biography were available. However, it is a fascinating exploration of the comic medium as a form for documenting lives and highly recommended to anyone interested in the development of the graphic novel.