This One Summer begins with a brief flashback of a sleeping young girl being carried by her father to a lakeside cottage. It’s a beautifully illustrated sequence that succinctly evokes that particular nostalgia for the lazy summer days of childhood: the ending of the school term, building sandcastles on the beach, feeling the heat of the sun and being blinded by the glare reflected of the water, floating on its surface or being allowing to be engulfed by its murky depths, collecting pebbles and seashells by the shore, exploring the woods and hearing the leaves underfoot being crushed, staying up late unsupervised to watch movies or swap gossip or tell scary ghost stories. Creators (and cousins) Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki certainly capture all this within their latest collaboration. But they also dig beneath the surface to fashion a story of personal growth, nascent sexuality, the inexorable dissolution of longstanding relationships, and the end of innocence. The narrative slowly unfolds through scenes composed of quiet reflection, meaningless distractions, chance meetings, short elliptical conversations, with the occasional flare-up for emphasis.
But above all else is how the story is told through stunning artwork. TOS might be the most gorgeous-looking comic book I’ve read to come out in 2014. As an illustrator Jillian is noteworthy for her lushly detailed drawing style with its varied, organic lines realized with supple brushwork. She compliments it here with delicate blue washes that work to capture the sensuality of the book’s idyllic setting. The inviting waters of the lake, the inky sky at night, the dampness of the summer rain, the quaint houses, the coolness of the shade, or the deep shadow of the verdant undergrowth. But the monochromatic color palette also serves to express a certain narrative ambiguity. The mood can subtly modulate from placid to melancholic, or from comforting to a little threatening, within an instant.
Jillian’s characters posses a slightly cartoony look that reminds me of a more nuanced version of Craig Thompson. They’re rendered with an economy of features to help distinguish them from the richly textured backgrounds. The book’s POV character is Rose, an only child who spends every summer with her parents at their residence located on the small resort town of Awago. Her usual summer companion is another girl named Windy. Based on the way Rose reminisces about them, these trips were enjoyable family vacations. But both girls are now on the cusp of adolescence, though Rose is slightly older and much lankier. While she’s beginning to notice the teenage boys around her, the cherubic Windy still views them as freaks and clings to girlish pursuits. This small contrast is mirrored in Rose’s own parents. The more stoutly built and voluble Evan seems determined that everyone have fun during their time at Awago. The introverted and tightly wound Alice is an older, more exasperated version of Rose. Her body inexplicably emaciated, her thin hair swept back and messily arranged, her face taught with worry, and the round glasses she wears form a mask which she sometimes uses to withdraw from the world.
It would be easy to blame Alice for much of the conflict that takes place in the book. And that’s what the uncomprehending Rose initially does. Events take a turn for the worse when Alice receives a visit from her vivacious sister and brother-in-law. His attempts to coax Alice out of her shell end disastrously, resulting in an impasse between Alice and Evan. This causes a rift to develop between her and Rose, heartbreakingly portrayed by their subsequent verbal exchanges in which Alice refuses to look at her daughter. The strain it puts on their relationship negatively impacts the way Rose conducts herself around other people, especially an older boy whom she's been secretly crushing on named Dunc. When a scandal involving him and his girlfriend threatens to erupt, Rose instinctively comes to his defence by formulating some unforgiving ideas about women's sexual promiscuity. This precipitates her first argument over gender politics with Windy. But this isn’t a book with any obviously labelled heroes and villains, just flawed individuals whose needs don’t always align with each other simply because they’re family. The root of Alice’s depression does eventually become discernible to the reader. And it’s a credit to Mariko’s abilities as a writer that both adults and children come across as sympathetic characters in the end.
If there’s a flaw to the book, it’s in the attempt to weave all the various plot threads by tying them together into a satisfactory conclusion. It’s the one part of the book in which the generally relaxed nature of the narrative starts to let slip some of the crinkles, and the emotional content swerves close to melodramatic territory. But this is a minor complaint when compared to the many pleasures of TOS. The book manages to distill the vivid emotions and fuzzy memories associated with the season without falling into the trap of becoming over-sentimental.
The story told in the pages of Shoplifter will be all too familiar to many: idealistic college graduate who takes a job to pay the bills, only to find herself stuck in a rut several years later. The ennui felt by the petit-bourgeois as they carry on with their humdrum routines has been grist for all kinds of popular entertainment for decades now, including many alt-lit comics from the nineties. So the graphic novel’s creator Michael Cho doesn’t exactly cover new ground here. But I suspect this trope will only continue to find an eager audience as we seemingly march towards a future in which all of human civilization has been successfully converted into a giant high-tech shopping mall, à la Wall-E.
This is a simple tale with hardly any plot to speak of. Corrina Park works as a copywriter for an ad agency located in an unnamed North American city (I’m assuming it’s Toronto). She began her career dreaming of one day becoming a novelist. But with said dreams still completely unfulfilled, her personal frustration begins to bubble to the surface. This causes her boss to inquire whether she even wants to continue working at the agency. There’s no melodrama in Shoplifter. Corinna doesn’t suddenly decide to bring down the capitalist system from within by founding an underground fight club, or anything else along those lines. But she does avail herself to a low-level form of rebellion by pilfering magazines from the local convenience store. There aren’t any illicit affairs, or physical confrontations, or office intrigue leading to a public blowout with the boss. The book is instead a quiet meditation wherein its protagonist navigates a series of mundane obstacles, culminating in a quiet epiphany. It reads like something a film school major or fledging indie director would have fashioned into a short movie. So why not adapt those devices to one's first graphic novel?
I will admit that one of the reasons I enjoyed Shoplifter is that I identified with Corrina to a considerable degree, particularly her backstory and frustrated creative ambitions. But the first words she utters, which she declares in perfect deadpan, quickly won me over. Corinna is a likeable individual. Introverted, but affable. Thoroughly dissatisfied with what she's accomplished so far, but somewhat aware of the comparable privilege she still enjoys because of her day job. Afraid of change, but desperate for personal growth. And I'm amused at how Cho draws her as a diminutive Asian woman who exhibits the occasional worry lines under her eyes. This makes her appear both fragile and visually unique. Corinna’s cropped dark hair makes her a little bit easier to spot in even the most crowded city street. But her stature constantly forces her to literally look up to anyone she engages in conversation, which is slightly comical and kinda endearing.
The supporting characters are no more than archetypes. There’s the aforementioned boss portrayed as a dapper middle-aged man who likes to put on airs. A slightly ditzy-looking receptionist co-worker, the closest person Corinna has to a friend, keeps inviting her to join in the after-hours fraternizing. A would-be love interest is given rugged good looks - complete with stubble and smouldering dark eyes. Their appearances are mercifully short, and they’re rendered in assured shorthand by Cho. He draws in a classic illustrative style along the lines of Darwyn Cooke and Jaime Hernandez. Forms and shapes are clearly delineated by eschewing cross hatching for solid shadows. Cho’s economical with his use of blacks, and employs rose pinks for midtones. The effect of these choices captures the lively bustle of the book’s urban setting and the ubiquity of electronic media.
The overarching theme of Shoplifter is how this ubiquity has allowed advertising to intrude into every aspect of our lives, influencing the way individual consumers communicate with each other until their online profiles have been turned into brands desperately promoting their status updates. Cho’s approach to the issue isn’t subtle: Corrina is seen rejecting poorly-worded proposals on an internet dating site. And the book’s pivotal scene occurs in an obnoxious nightclub party celebrating the launch of a social media site that reduces human relationships “into a plus or minus value. For whatever the client’s product or service.” Ugh! That’s so MeowMeowBeenz. But never is this more evident than in the physical world where Cho gets to show his chops as an artist and illustrator. Whether it be the conspicuously designed billboards and posters that plaster the city’s downtown area. Or the typography adorning street signs, subway station ads, train car cards, store shelf products, and magazine racks. Corrina is inundated by ad-copy wherever she goes. But as uncomfortable as that might sound, it’s lovingly realized by Cho. His urban landscapes are neatly balanced, luminous, even almost magical. The city might foster a rootless existence. But it is a seductive place, serenely insisting that the reader become lost within it.
Translated by Kim Thompson.
[this review contains spoilers]
Back in 1984, cartoonist Ulli Lust was a rebellious Austrian teenager unwilling to go down the conventional path of graduating from a good school, finding a secure job, and settling down to raise a family. So she drops out of art school, hangs out at her older sister’s Vienna apartment, and joins the punk movement - that era's fashionable counterculture. “I’m an anarchist” she proudly proclaims, “I’m going to get myself a tattoo - maybe.” Like many adolescents, she’s convinced of her own worldliness, and assured of her own personal invincibility. It doesn’t take much to persuade her to sneak into Italy with travelling companion Edi during the summer. Much of Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life is spent recounting that eventful trip. On the surface, her experience reads like a "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll” type of story. But what remains long after is the impression of hard-won knowledge about how class and gender function in the real world.
Her excursion commences with the usual high spirits. Ulli and Edi illegally cross the border into Italy on foot (needless to say, this isn’t the present-day E.U. open market) with a sleeping bag, no money or passports, and the clothes on their back. They’re relieved to be free of the oppressive atmosphere in Austria and enjoying the pleasant climate of the Italian countryside. The two soon settle into a bohemian lifestyle. As befitting their punk cred, they’re casually nihilistic - they have no problem conning money off strangers or using their femininity to get them a free meal or a place to stay for the night. Ulli does get to experience some wonderful things such as visiting some of the country’s most beautiful attractions, sleeping under the stars, swimming in the Mediterranean, attending a Clash concert, or a performance of Carmen. She and Edi meet other transients, and they receive from them a practical education on how to survive in Italy on next to nothing. Lust draws all this in a roughly-hewn style, mostly contained in the traditional grid layout and filled-in by olive-colored duotones. It looks rather unrefined at first glance, but this belies an artist fully confident in her abilities. Lust is a very capable caricaturist, easily managing her large cast of supporting and incidental characters. And she exhibits no difficulty in capturing the book’s varied and ever-changing setting, whether it be the humble backstreets of Verona or the pomp of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
But events gradually take a darker turn as the summer wanes. Ulli begins to fall into a rut as she tires of the cold and the unwanted attention of her Italian admirers. But her rejection of their advances only emboldens them further. The Virgin/Whore dichotomy found in this very masculine and Catholic-conservative culture comes to the foreground (Edi and Ulli are even explicitly described in this manner at one point). Lust’s art beautifully captures the ravenous expressions of the men who eye her and the psychological toll it takes on her, illustrated by a number of surreal fantasies. She transforms into a wraith, bursts into flame, or is engulfed in complete darkness. Ulli feels relentlessly under attack from an alien society which places far greater weight on a man’s honor than on a woman’s dignity, were any unaccompanied foreigner is viewed as fair game. Unfortunately, the pressure eventually becomes too much even for her to resist.
The advancing gloom also creates a rift between Ulli and Edi. While the two were initially linked by the yearning to escape their mundane lives back in Vienna, their opposing reactions to adversity force Ulli to confront the personal differences between them. Edi responds to the street-level violence and rampant sexism around her with wilful ignorance and extreme self-indulgence. Her craving for excitement ultimately steers the two on a self-destructive course, almost trapping them in a brutish existence under the control of Italy's more unsavoury criminal elements. This leads to the fraying of the bond between Ulli and Edi. Combined with a thousand other trivial struggles and little betrayals from other fair weather friends, and Ulli finds herself without a desperately-needed safety net. When Italy finally loses all appeal and she senses that it’s time to return to Austria, the quiet realization is deflating. “I was going to rejoin the land of the living” Ulli admits to herself.
Lust’s recollection of her youthful indiscretions is as similarly detached as the events themselves are outrageous, the voice of a self-possessed narrator looking back at her turbulent past. She’s hesitant to editorialize her actions other than deciding what to include in the book. Her older self never intrudes into the narrative to comment on, or express an opinion, let alone claim to be smarter or wiser since that time in her life. There’s no trite moralizing about her failings, and her homecoming is shorn of the cheap sentimentality expressed when a prodigal daughter is welcomed back with open arms. Ulli is instead greeted by a barrage of recriminations from her confused and exasperated parents. But battered as she is by life, her final act in the book indicates that she still retains the defiant streak that inspired her to leave home in the first place, not to mention the resilience that sustained her through tough times.