A large park in London is the center for all kinds of wonderful summertime activities: picnicking, visiting with friends and family, taking the dog out to chase a ball, have a nice day in the sun. But on one bucolic summer day, a happy-seeming dog goes a little wild and bites a strange man on his hand, a misunderstanding happens, somebody pushes somebody else – and in subtle ways, the whole emotional and civic fabric of society starts to break down a bit.
Over the last few years I’ve noticed that there’s an emerging school of British cartooning that presents naturalistic stories about normal people who have intriguing events happen to them. These works aren’t grandiose or sensationalistic; rather, they’re graphic novels that are very much grounded in specific characters and specific locations, motivated by understandable emotions and driven by a confident creative impulse.
This may be a reviewer’s bias or a small sample size, but Oscar Zarate’s The Park joins such works as Posy Simmond’s Tamara Drewe, Glyn Dillon’s The Nao of Brown and Ilya’s Room for Love as part of a small, subtle movement towards a new British naturalism in graphic novels, a wonderfully welcome sort of non-genre, non-autobio fiction that feels like it could have come directly from the real world onto the comics page.
All four of these books share some common motifs. First, they’re all driven by an sense of British middle-class ennui, a feeling of vague dissatisfaction and a quest for something slightly different. Many of the men and women in these books are also middle-aged along with being middle class, men and women who have mainly accomplished what they wanted to accomplish with their lives but who vaguely feel like they want something more. The characters in these books share their thoughts with the readers freely and openly, sometimes narrating the books, sometimes sharing thoughts via thought balloons (a real rarity in American comics, of course) that allow readers to see introspection juxtaposed with the outside world, producing a fascinating combination.
Zarate’s book is an ensemble piece, with several different people spinning around each other and intersecting at different places. Chris has been a postman for 20 years and a musician on the side. Chris is bitten by Ivan’s dog. Ivan is a blowhard, full of his bloviating self-importance as a newspaper columnist and soon-to-be radio announcer. Both men have children. Chris’s son is angry at his dad for dad’s passive attitude about the dog bite; Ivan’s daughter is angry at her dad for making too much out of the situation.
There are several things that make this book stand out. First of all, Zarate’s art is gorgeous, Painted in an expressive palette that veers slightly towards abstraction but that always obeys the dictates of the story, Zarate delivers characters who are memorably specific – bloviating Ivan is fat but carries himself with real pride; his daughter Melody appears to be mixed-race but is also tortured by her complex inner life and all the emotional turmoil that she finds herself trapped in, reflected in a way by the tough injury she incurs during the story.
The abstract realism of Zarate’s people is contrasted nicely with the expressive realism of the park itself, with its trees, birds and other animals seemingly living on a different plane from the humans, existing in a world that is somehow more real than the introspection-driven world that these people inhabit.
Another thing that makes this book stand out is the complexity of the folks that Zarate portrays. None of them can easily be pegged as any sort of stereotype or abstract persona. I kept wanting to place Ivan at par with Rush Limbaugh or another American blow-hard, but he’s way too elusive than that. He’s too complex, too himself, and more importantly too British to have him fit an American stereotype. All the characters in The Park are like that; their personalities all twist and turn themselves in front of the reader, giving us a fully-fledged and wonderfully complex portrait of these men and women: the passive postal worker shows he has guts, the eco-warrior shows her true complexity; the violent man who pushes a woman into a lake shows that he isn’t just a young punk asshole.
Like all the best ensemble stories, The Park brings people together and splits them apart in ways that are unpredictable and intriguing for a reader. In part because this sort of story isn’t told very often in comics, we have no roadmap to follow, no indication of how certain storylines will pay off – or even if the storylines will pay off at all. I found myself enraptured in this book as I flipped the pages, anxious with each page turn to find out what would happen next and delighted when that next event was a complete surprise to me.
I love this new British school of naturalistic graphic novels. Of course, I’m more or less the same age as some of the protagonists of these books. My passion for them may come from the simple fact that it’s a real joy to read about non-powered, non-angsty men and women who are around the same age as me. But I also love this new school of graphic novels because of works like Oscar Zarate’s The Park. This is a thoroughly satisfying novel about interesting people having unexpected events happen to them. I love being surprised.