“Realism,” quotation marks and all, can be a strange thing to demand from any form of fiction, and it can be a strange thing to decry the lack of.
This seems especially true when the fiction under discussion comes in the form of comics, probably because the form has been dominated by genre works for so long that straight comics literature divorced from easy genre classifications (horror, romance, superhero, crime, etc) are still (relatively) new.
Of course that fiction’s not real—it’s fiction. Someone is making it up. How realistic do you want it to be? The easy answer is that it should be realistic enough that you can forget that people are behind the scenes inventing it long enough to lose yourself in the story and the drama enough to enjoy it, or be affected by it.
I think comics struggles with this a bit more than other media like, say, prose or film, simply because it is easier for them to achieve different types of verisimilitude. A film looks like the real world, the written word is the way we communicate a lot of information—a novel might look or read the same way a letter or email or news article might.
But comics? Someone had to draw all those little lines making up those people, and the little bubbles surrounding all the words, whether they hand-lettered those words or had a computer program do it for them.
Writer Andrew Rostan’s An Elegy for Amelia Johnson had me contemplating this, because its biggest weakness, as far as I could diagnose it, was what a difficult time I had not seeing the strings being pulled to make the characters go this way or that.
There’s nothing fantastical in the story itself—a creative young woman is dying from breast cancer, and calls on her best friends, both of whom are also young creative professionals, to help her get her affairs in order and collaborate with her on a big project. And Rostan’s writes them as authentic and individual people.
It’s just that some of it seems too convenient, too perfect, too obviously a work of fiction for me to easily get lost in (This may not be entirely a bad thing; I had tears in my eyes when I closed the book, if it were more convincingly I probably would have been bawling and wiping my nose on my sleeve).
The artwork, provided by Dave Valeza and Kate Kasenow, is lovely, lovely work, but it doesn’t look anything like the real world, which makes that suspension of disbelief a little harder.
That’s not a complaint. I loved the artwork, and actually tend to be turned off by overly realistic artwork in comics, since the fact that drawings are drawn is what’s best about ‘em. It’s just an observation about the medium in general.
Valeza and Kasenow provide work that is highly cartoony. It’s flat in terms of dimension, it’s stark black and white, with no shades of gray. The designs seem vaguely manga-inspired, but several generations removed (touches of it reminded me a 1960s era manga), and there’s an almost Andi Watson-like element to its simplicity.
It’s really a beautiful-looking book, and it’s certainly one of the most visually eloquent and potent ones I’ve read the last few weeks, but it can’t transcend that suspension of disbelief problem.
So, the title character is a 30-year-old poet entering her last few week’s of life. She has called on her two best friends, who, as luck would have it, are a documentary filmmaker and a travel writer, and, as luck would further have it, the two have never met one another (the first Amelia grew up with, the second she met at college, and somehow the three of them were never in the same place at the same time).
She tasks them with taking a cross-country trip and delivering recorded messages to several important people in her life, and then recording the reactions and farewells of those people, so she could see how they respond in person before she dies—and without having to leave her hospital bed to see them all in person.
She has an ulterior motive for tasking these two friends with this particular quest, one that is immediately obvious given the fact that one of them is a man and the other is a woman.
There’s not a whole lot of suspense to it then, but there is a lot of drama, and even more melodrama—cancer, death, love, faith, secrets, a controversial subject I don’t want to spoil, how could there not be? —and it’s all effective. Hell, it’s all affective.
I just had a hard time forgetting Rostan made these people up and was moving them around like toys in order to manipulate my emotions. It felt a bit like a puppet show then, albeit a really great puppet show, one that offers plenty of things to think about, and even had me tearing up.
Shut up. It’s okay for a grown man to cry when he reads a sad comic, isn’t it? How about if I dab my tears with a back-issue of The Punisher Armory…?