Every once in a while, I stumble across a graphic novel that's kind of a stealth book. The book starts out as one thing and seems to morph in front of my eyes into something very different than it initially seemed to be.
The new graphic novel Abelard from NBM is such a book.
Abelard starts out as a quiet, pastoral, rather whimsical fable about a sweet anthropomorphic bird who is happily living a calm and peaceful life somewhere in Russia as the book begins. Renaud Dillies's book art in the early pages of this book is clear but slightly abstract, colored in earth tones and punctuated with whimsical artistic asides that resemble the quirks of a George Herriman. The art and coloring subtly reinforces the calm, peace and contented happiness that Abelard enjoys. His life is full of simple joys: days are spent hanging out with the other birds, sharing beers, playing cards, fishing and living a life of no real stress. Life is good. Life is calm. But his life will soon change dramatically.
Abelard's view of the world is changed by a chance encounter with a beautiful girl skinny-dipping in a local canal. The news that two men in far-away America have created a machine that can fly follows soon after. Suddenly Abelard's world seems small and insignificant. He wants to be where the action is, and where the people are. These twin emotional earthquakes lead Abelard to make a major life decision: it was time to leave the metaphorical nest and head to America, where everything seemed possible.
After Abelard makes his decision, both his life and the tone of this book change dramatically. Abelard suffers all kinds of humiliations once he moves away from his calm and happy life, meets new people and goes to new places. The experiences Abelard has away from his small peaceful world are intensely scary and alienating. Abelard feels lost, both literally and metaphorically; he moves to a world where one can be beaten to within an inch of one's life but still needs to marshal the courage and inner strength to carry on.
Renaud Dillies's art is a big part of what makes this book stand out. Our small hero is filled with intense emotions at virtually every turn, and Dillies does a wonderful job of making readers deeply feel every event that Abelard experiences. This is a bird who deeply feels everything that happens to him. Dillies masterfully takes an almost abstract looking character and makes readers empathize with him. Empathize, hell! By the time you're done reading this book, the pathetically sad face of this poor immigrant bird will break your heart with his intense longing and sadness and innocent ambition to simply succeed in his quixotic dream.
The scenes towards the end are set on an ocean liner sailing to America, and they're so evocative, so interesting and creative and unique and somehow very moving for any of us who are grandchildren of immigrants that they take on a surprising amount of emotional power. In the second half of the book, the art takes a darker turn that emphasizes the intensity of Abelard's tragic life aboard the ship. It's more enclosed and less open. There are more panels per page and the abstract flourishes are gone. The coloring has gotten darker and our little bird no longer dreams of catching the moon.
We start the book enjoying Abelard's antics and innocence and in the end project our own experiences onto him. He's abstract cartoon bird as everyman, so to speak.
Maybe most moving of all, not all of the whimsy of the early sections of this book quite goes away as the story progresses. There's a conceit that every day Abelard finds a new quotation in his hat every morning ("If what you have to say isn't as beautiful as silence, then be quiet." "Before admitting the absurd, exhaust all solutions." "Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm."), and that idea goes from being kind of overly cutesy when it first happens to being completely moving and ironic towards the end of the book. To maintain whimsy in the midst of life-threatening illness may be the most heroic act of all, and our little bird stays true to himself even as he meets a surprisingly tragic end.
This stealth graphic novel starts out feeling like a sweet, whimsical pastoral children's graphic novel and slowly morphs into a wonderfully moving adult story that kind of sneaks up on you with its craft, intelligence and interesting themes. I'm going to remember this little bird for a while.