Shake up a bottle of champagne and pop its cork in the middle of a crowded party. As the bubbly spurts out and cascades, covering the room, know that each person touched by even the slightest drop of it will eventually die. A matter of fact, everyone invited to the party will, at some point, die. So too, those who were left off the invitation list. Even those whom the party host has never met, they too shall die in the not too distant future.
This is not a cause and effect relationship. It just is.
Everyone you ever met. That woman who caught your eye in a downtown bar half a lifetime ago whose image haunts you whenever you taste the black licorice zing of Ouzo. The guy who outran you in the 7th grade track meet and stole the accolades you were sure you deserved. Tomorrow’s great epic poet who is bound to be misquoted on the internet leading to a fifteen second scandal nobody will remember ten seconds after that.. Today’s master comic book letterer who captures a gamut of nuance in the way she forms the letter P.
Your grandmother. Your grandchild. You. Me. All of us. Gone.
What was that, Walt Whitman? Oh, yea. “Come lovely and soothing death, Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving, In the day, in the night, to all, to each, Sooner or later, Delicate death.”
When we experience the loss of those we love, sometimes it sends us careening through emotions like a gyroscope on a roller-coaster in a theme-park during an earthquake. Sometimes it causes us to wail vociferously at the blood moon night and suck deeply from a bottle of 12 year old Irish whiskey stolen from Costco. Sometimes it causes us to get very quiet, push others away, and not bother to shave for a few weeks. Sometimes there is just a letting go, an exhale of all the responsibilities and burdens and worries which then necessitates an inhale of the rhythms intrinsic to a celebration of life. Elegy or Eulogy – Dirge or Requiem. Regardless of your reaction to death, all reactions are interactions with the self and are finally, fully, an act of creation. What death brings to us, we bring to life. The cycle continues. The energy is refocused.
Which brings me to Jason Walz’s Homesick, a 2014 Eisner Award nominee for Best Graphic Album, published by Tinto Press. In this, Walz has taken a deeply personal story of loss and a rumination on love and has created art, pushing the idea of the graphic memoir further – he viscerally conveys a subjective perception through his linework and choices, and, in the act of controlling his medium, he unlocks the gates of that emotional sensibility and allows all of us entry.
And, from what I’ve heard, this is his DEBUT graphic novel.
The focus of Homesick is the death of Walz’s mother from cancer and, while that subject is emotionally charged, Walz adds a further layer of thematic electricity by tying it to the concepts of the roles mothers play in the lives of sons, the roles men play in the lives of the women they love, the roles teachers play in a system that doesn’t value individuality, and the roles we all play in creating a home for ourselves.
With clear demarcation and subtle pleaching, Walz interweaves a story of a lost Russian cosmonaut into his personal memoir, allowing the reader to draw the metaphoric parallels. It’s an intricate dance. These sorts of narrative games often run the risk of being too overt and thereby lose their impact. Walz is able to take his cosmic allegory and, through great care and expert choices, convey the emotional intensity that he wants – it’s what he needs as his story demands it.
This isn’t navel-gazing or sorrow wallowing. Homesick wants our participation in the experience on an instinctual level. There’s little didacticism, although there is plenty of manipulation. As if almost a poet, Walz conveys the hues and shades of his sensitivities. Through the synergy of words and pictures, negative space and dark washes, open panels and tight details, each page is suffused with Walz’s sensibilities. He trusts the empathy of his audience to feel something. He knows we all know someone who’s died, is dying, or will die soon.
What I really liked about Homesick, though, is the fact that it eschews simple answers to complex questions. Often times, authors of memoirs feel the need to answer universal questions, especially those dealing with the purpose of life and our relationship to our mortality. Walz chooses to leave it open ended; he casts the ashes into the sea and casts his cosmonaut into the abyss of space. His narrator doesn’t come to any profound realizations about the nature of existence, nor does he try to tell us what we should do in the face of loss and/or tragedy. There are simple words for us at the end of Homesick, just as there are simple drawings. Still, there are times when the simple can be the most communicative and there are times when in silence we find our own profundity.
Everybody you’ve ever loved is eventually going to die. If they do so before you, there is bound to be a certain pain associated with that loss. It’s a personal experience, but it’s also a universal one. Willa Cather wrote, “Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes for thousands of years.” Jason Walz understands this idea. Homesick is one of those stories. He tells it to us and we read it already knowing what it is saying.
Which is comforting and it’s beautiful and finally, at last, it’s art and it’s home.