Thursday, January 26, 2017

libby's dad, a comic by eleanor davis

I wasn't sure I'd like Libby's Dad. Nothing against Eleanor Davis, who's plainly great, but the tagline skewed a little too after-school special for my taste:

Libby's mom told everyone that Libby's dad said he was gonna shoot her. With his gun.

One reader's hook is another reader's Aerosmith-grade reflection on the legacy of abuse, as they say. Obviously Libby's Dad got a lot of praise in 2016, but it's hard to know how much that means? Few people seem willing to say anything negative about top-shelf indie cartoonists these days for any number of reasons, and only one of them is that the work is really that good. (I don't really care enough to chide people, just sometimes it's hard to know what to buy.) In any case, against expectation, I found this title interesting. It's also very nice to look at, but I knew that much going in.

Davis is a cartoonist and an illustrator, and she combines those sensibilities here to great effect. Formally, these images are sophisticated without calling attention to their own tricks. The design of a given spread is thoughtful and intricate without feeling overworked; there's an easiness about everything down to the word bubbles, which feel like they've been truly weighed and considered as part of each composition. Davis's clever use of mixed layouts and multiple perspectives give the story the beats of a comic without relying on the use of formal panels, which brings a satisfying sense of fullness to the page.

The sunlight-colored paper imbues the daytime scenes with a light and airy feeling, while the after-dark scenes feel more intimate--and sometimes oppressive--with heavy blue shading.

Of course the lack of panels also makes Libby's Dad look a lot like a children's book--a presentation that pulls against the menace of the story in a way that feels more subtle and poignant than its other stylistic nod to childhood, the crayon-like finish of the colored pencilling. To be honest, I found Davis's pencil work uneven. While she draws with a delicacy that's perfect for rendering a languid summer afternoon, her more minimalist images toward the end of the story are far less effective.

not feeling this dramatic stencil

sorry, also meh

The simplicity in those two drawings was clearly meant to have dramatic impact--and also convey that the images are ideas and memories, as opposed to part of the material present--but they just look unfinished to my eye.

Much like Davis has considered the visual weight of words so they feel organic to her compositions, her pictures carry the storytelling with practiced economy. Many little character-making details can be found in the body language. For example, the innocence of the youngest character, who always stands out most because of her freckles, is clearly broadcast through the unselfconscious way in which she moves through the world:

Then there's Libby, who's old enough to feel awkward in her body. She recedes into the background in almost every image; you can almost hear her willing herself to disappear. Sometimes she's physically set apart from the others in some way, and other times she wears a distant expression.

"kill me"

I like the way that the girls' expressions here, even though they're crudely drawn, convey so much. You can see how Libby always feels alone in a crowd:

"or maybe kill them, idk"

Libby's recently divorced dad doesn't have to be pictured (or even mentioned) for me to feel his desperation to please his daughter. All that stuff is palpable just in watching the girls eat cake.

These last two images in particular convey the central strength of Davis's work (apart from sheer skill), which is its considerable charm. It really can't be overstated, and somehow it never feels canned or forced.

As for the story's central mystery--and now we're sort of moving into spoiler territory here, if that's the kind of thing you care about--I found it more ambiguous than most readers. Is Libby's dad an abuser? The story doesn't definitively answer this question, to my mind. On one hand, we have secondhand information--possibly a rumor, given that we hear it from a kid--that Libby's dad said he was going to shoot Libby's mom. We know that one kid's mother took this information seriously enough that she won't let her child go to Libby's house, and we also live in a world where these sorts of "rumors" are usually true. Plus you can build a persuasive case from the clues scattered throughout the comic: Libby's moodiness...that image of her mother sobbing in the supermarket...the (somewhat heavy-handed, imo) Garden of Eden imagery in Davis's lush floral setting. There's also the liminal nature of this group of characters, who are at that age where some, but not all, of their friend group are maybe crossing over into puberty. It's all this Lost Innocence stuff in particular that makes "Libby's dad is a total dick" seem like the "real" conclusion.

Despite all that I found myself skeptical. Like...could Libby feel withdrawn simply because of the divorce, and not because there was something sinister going on with her dad? What are we to make of the fact that she lives with her father? (That's not as rare as it used to be, but still only one in four of single-parent households are headed by dads. Is that a coincidence? A class thing? A judge's prejudice against women with mental illness?) Why doesn't Libby seem afraid of him at all? Was that image of her mother sobbing really indicative of some trauma inflicted by an abusive husband, or did she just get weepy when she saw her daughter's favorite snack at the store? Is the mother mentally ill, or is she just perceived as mentally ill for having a normal reaction to abuse? If she's truly unwell, is that linked to the abuse or a preexisting condition?

I mean, I can hear myself making excuses. But also: there's not really much information here. Still, knowing the political leanings of the author (which I share), it feels a little gross to bring any sort of skepticism to the story's thread of abuse. The simplest answer is usually the right one. Also would I even think to ask so many questions if Libby's dad didn't have such a nice house? And so on.

What I finally decided was that maybe the questions the comic asks were meant to be open-ended--that maybe even there was an absurd sort of hubris in imagining that I could figure this family out from a 40-page comic that describes one day in Libby's life. There's something about that tagline--right?--that, whether or not you appreciate the hook, makes you read with a sort of tacky curiosity about what Libby's dad's whole deal is. The curiosity with which you approach the comic as a reader ties into the most interesting undercurrent in the story, which is the unwitting damage we do as all-too-interested spectators to other people's lives. That theme comes through not just in the words of the children, who are inadvertently cruel to Libby, but also in the characters of Taylor and her mother, who are never pictured because Taylor's not allowed to hang out with Libby anymore. In what was probably just a quest to keep her own child safe, Taylor's mother has inflicted unintentional, but very real, damage on Libby--damage that might be affecting Libby as much or more than whatever's going on between her own parents.

When I was looking for other reviews, I learned that reading any ambiguity into the conclusion goes against the author's own intentions, for whatever that's worth. To me that reading feels a little boring and even preachy, though giving Libby's dad the benefit of the doubt is problematic in its own way. Bottom line: the art is mostly superb and the storytelling is great, but the meat of the story itself only became interesting to me when I pivoted from "how much of an asshole is Libby's dad?" to "how much of an asshole am I?" That might just be me, though--I worry about being an asshole pretty much constantly, and probably also I've been broken by the patriarchy. :(

Libby's Dad by Eleanor Davis is available from Retrofit and on Amazon
Rating: 7/10 - Recommended

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