The Smell of Starving Boys, the new graphic novel by Frederik Peeters and Loo Hui Phang, is the best graphic novel I’ve read all year. The book opens with an upside-down image of a beautifully stark cliff in Texas. Readers quickly learn the scene is lined up in an old-style camera and as the scene pulls back, we see the handsome, thin man who is running the camera. He has a gleam in his eye that makes him seem intelligent though perhaps a bit vain and a bit guarded with others.
We can see why he’s guarded as the scene expands and we see the conversation that surrounds the photo-taking. A fat, cigar-smoking man speaks to the photographer. Quickly the contrast between the dandy and the fat man becomes obvious. The photographer is fashionable, dressed in a suit the corpulent man describes as “Just splendid. Magnificent quality” and dressy shoes. The big man puffs his words through wisps of smoke that partially obscure his chubby face. As the fat man leans in, the photographer leans back.
In that one splendidly orchestrated scene, Peeters and Phang set the tone for the rest of this brilliant and deeply unsettling graphic novel of magnificent contradictions. We see the broken relationship between these two men, but also get a sense of the complex motivations that drive each of them to the frontier. Each reveals themselves in the final panels in that sequence. “What happened back there? Why come all the way our to this neck of the wilderness and choke on dust instead of living the good life in Manhattan?” the smoker asks. “A taste for adventure.” The photographer replies, Peeters depicts the cliff instead of the person speaking. The fat man grabs his plans to bring civilization to the place while the photographer ponders his past.
It’s a slow burn scene that alerts readers that we will soon be enmeshed in a fascinating Western of deep contradictions.
It’s always exciting when a new Frederik Peeters graphic novel comes out. Aama, his recent four-volume science fiction series, was a brilliant and bizarre head trip of a science fiction comic, full of fascinating characters, complex relationships and an astonishing panoply of otherworldly landscapes. It had depth and complexity built around a level of despair felt by his characters, a baffling emotional landscape to match the daunting physical landscape of the alien planet. Peeters’ world in Aama was deeply influenced by the work of the great Moebius, but through a decidedly different lens.
When I head Peeter’s new book was a Western, I was intrigued. Would the artist deliver work like Moebius’s Lt. Blueberry works, as straight-ahead western adventure, or would he take a different tack?
I’m delighted to report that he and collaborator Loo Hui Phang delivered a unique work.
Starving Boys is about many things but on the surface, it treads a well-worn landscape. After the Civil War, a geologist, a photographer and their young assistant journey deep into the Texas frontier to explore the vast landscape. While there, the men meet a tribe of Comanches who put up an unexpected resistance. Relationships change, and in the end, all three people find themselves transformed by their experiences.
It’s to the credit of Peeters and Phang that this book works on that level. Aside from some unsettling and odd moments of magic, Starving Boys proceeds along fairly normal lines. A reader can enjoy the book on that level and get a lot out of it.
But lurking just below the surface, occasionally bursting to the forefront, is a far richer story based on the complex backstories of each of these characters. Oscar Forrest, the photographer, is an Irishman who chose to go out West for reasons that slowly become clear as the book unfolds. The geologist, Stingley, seems at first avaricious but eventually becomes more complex. And Milton, the assistant, has secrets that only can be exposed where nobody else is around.
Freed from the constraints of civilization, from fine suits and secrets below the surface, these characters are able to be free, to prove who they truly are, and furthermore to journey through the landscape to become more fully formed versions of who they are. Masks come off, inhibitions cast by the wayside as superfluous or even indulgent in this landscape, and strange things begin to happen among the people making their journey.
The Smell of Starving Boys is a work of mesmerizing contradictions. Starving Boys is a story about shifting identity and unexpected changes in an unchanging environment. It’s an often claustrophobic and deeply intimate story of three deeply flawed people set against a vast and beautiful landscape. It’s the story of familiar made unfamiliar, of classic motifs used in unexpected ways and of common landscapes delivered like vast alien structures. Like all great art, The Smell of Starving Boys is beguiling and deeply unsettling. Also like all great art, it can be enjoyed on multiple levels.
It’s all conveyed in a series of small and large moments that feel so significant: the visual representation of how Milton speaks to horses, small moments like the unbuttoning of Oscar’s collar as a sign of his change, the mysterious Indian who wanders in and out of their lives. It all culminates in an ecstatic and terrifying conclusion just as strange and intriguing as everything else we’ve read in the book The conclusion works as the culmination of an accumulation of detailed moments, as a payoff for the characters’ spiritual and emotional growth throughout the book. Though it may (or may not) be metaphorical, the ending feels perfectly fitting for the world Petters and Phang create.
The book fills its 9×12 size, with gorgeous, vast, often alien-seeming landscapes that provide the ideal counterpoint for the intimate story Peeters and Phang tell. Every gesture, every small moment, is conveyed by Peeters as a perfectly realized moment in time, full of significant detail, as strange as the human soul and as timeless as the Old West.
The Old West is a physical place but it’s also a metaphorical place. It’s a place of transformation, of spirituality, of the transformations the vast physical world forces on the individual. In the end, the world created in The Smell of Starving Boys is as familiar as our own country and as strange as the world of Aama.