Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/4/2011 (4087 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
By David Lester
Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 312 pages, $20
ONE can only sigh at some results of seven years' labour, while shaking one's head.
Published by Winnipeg-based Arbeiter Ring, Vancouver-based artist and designer David Lester's first graphic novel The Listener features at least a few individual panels that strain at the leash of amateurism. Sadly, the tether never quite snaps.
Notwithstanding one or two effective sequences that effectively utilize the possibilities of comics storytelling, the artist's limited powers can't do justice to his ambition.
The Listener, done entirely in black and white, begins with an arresting sequence of cross cutting between Lester's protagonist, an artist named Louise Shearing, and an activist attempting to fly a political banner atop a transmission tower. (It's perfectly illustrates how comics borrow from cinema, while still retaining their own unique esthetic.)
What this has to do with the rest of the story requires one to wade through the rest of book -- or simply skip to the last 20 pages, if you prefer.
But in the meantime, Louise meanders through Europe, philosophizing and visiting museums, before meeting an old German couple with a shameful tale of their Second World War experiences.
The story Lester has chosen to tell has great potential, but the end result is so relentlessly didactic, it becomes off-putting. Sometimes one wonders if the purpose is simply to make sure we get the point -- which would be overbearing and bad enough -- or to highlight the artist's erudition and memory bank of quotes.
Given that Lester even quotes Brecht at one point, maybe didacticism was indeed the intended point. But it remains that he is still telling us a story, and the lecturing, show-offy approach short-circuits our ability to get wrapped up in it.
Ah, but perhaps that's the whole point -- it's to inspire reflection on how a man like Hitler could come to power. Touché.
Remember, though, that artist Jason Lutes's great Berlin series relates the forces at work at the time with humour, emotional involvement and considerably greater artistry. Lester's work suffers tremendously in comparison.
As to his artwork, most of Lester's faces utterly lack expression, as well as being interchangeable. There are maybe two panels that suggest Louise actually has an individual personality. The mice, cats and pigs in Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus also had one-size-fits-all faces, but they at least had expressiveness.
It's also an interesting idea to make some faces echo the art of the period, such as the paintings of Picasso's "primitive phase," highlighted by famous works like Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
However, it again just feels like the artist being taken with himself. "Hey, wouldn't it be neat to evoke Cubism in some of the panels!" Hey, sure. Except, the idea is never made to function with purpose in the context of the overall enterprise.
It's like an over-reaching undergraduate project, this book. In fact, the characters themselves come off as precious undergrads most of the time: sometimes it's like they're having quotation contests. "Marx said x." "Yeah, well, Gertrude Stein said y!" So much do they channel others' thoughts, they seems to lack voices of their own.
That goes for the whole work. The Listener is like an intellectual version of a Family Guy episode: it's built so much upon reference and allusion, there doesn't seem to be much there, underneath it all. And at least Family Guy entertains.
Kenton Smith is a freelance arts and culture critic based and comics enthusiast based in Winnipeg. He reviews movies for Uptown Magazine.
Tuxedo community correspondent
Kenton Smith was a community correspondent for Tuxedo.