Joe and Azat
Written & Illustrated by Jesse Lonergan
Published by NBM
Cartoonist Jesse Lonergan traveled to Turkmenistan with the Peace Corps, and his experiences there are filtered through exaggeration, fiction and personal creative whimsy to craft Joe and Azat: the story of a young American cartoonist Joe and his unlikely friendship with an idealistic Turkman named Azat.
Joe and Azat is a fairly surprising work. Joe’s raison d’etre for being in Turkmenistan, his mission with the Peace Corps, is referenced only obliquely, and the country’s political circumstances get even less page time. Joe and Azat is the tale of two young men’s culture-clashed, and culture-crossing, friendship.
To anybody with immigrants in their life, Joe’s experiences with Azat’s family will ring immediately true. Lonergan’s ability to show Azat’s meddling mother, drunken brother and idealism about capitalism works because he doesn’t cast any judgments. Every character is delivered with warm humanity, building the palpable reality of their existence.
I appreciated how Azat, overwhelmingly defined by his naïve love of capitalism and his unreasonable expectations for marriage, provides a range of personality. He embraces his opportunity to befriend Joe, he looks for the silver lining in his stumbling business ventures, and he believes fully that he’s found the love of his life. Joe’s dissociated window into Turkmen society allows us to peer into their world with a healthy degree of skepticism, but also an eye toward learning
Lonergan’s depiction of Azat’s mother, a what-will-the-neighbors-think immigrant mother, treads effectively (as Art Spiegelman lamented his own ability to do in the latter pages of Maus) the fine line between cliché and cliché-truth.
Artistically, Lonegran’s bigfoot cartoon style suits his upbeat, affectionate writing style. Occasionally, characters are difficult to distinguish; the thickness of Azat’s brother Merdan fails to come across, leaving the reader confused as to which sibling is angrily berating Joe and which is doggedly devoted to him. Actually, it’s obvious which is which, but the confusion does lead to some momentarily jarring sequences.
Joe and Azat is a warm, humorous comic, solidly crafted, and well worth picking up if you’re at the comic shop this week and find an extra $11 in your pocket.