Monday, February 4, 2013

Review: Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, by Mary M. & Bryan Talbot

Dotter of Her Father's Eyes is a book unlike any other I've read, a combined graphic biography (of Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce) and autobiography (of the graphic novel's writer, Mary M. Talbot, daughter of Joyce scholar James S. Atherton and a respected academic in her own right). Talbot had a pretty big "in" in terms of an artist for her first graphic novel, seeing as her husband is the legendary Bryan Talbot, the award-winning creator of many comics and graphic novels, from the groundbreaking The Adventures of Luther Arkwright to heartbreaking The Tale of One Bad Rat to the genre-busting Alice in Sunderland and more.

Given that I've long been a fan of Bryan Talbot's work and studied (and enjoyed!) a fair bit of Joyce in my undergraduate and graduate student days, I was prepared to love this book. Sadly, I only liked it well enough - usually that's fine, but I had such high hopes, given its subject matter and pedigree. Mary is a fine writer, without question, and Bryan's artwork is top-notch as ever (although this is not the bravura performance he gave in Sunderland), but I just didn't feel that these two stories really needed to be told together, or that they benefited much from their joining. It's true that there are obvious linkages between the two (Joyce, most obviously, plus enigmatic fathers), but those links don't really add up to much in the telling, apart from those basic means of comparison.

Lucia's story is heartbreaking, to be sure. A talented dancer, she found her life choices always constrained and compromised by her parents' constant moving from one country to another, even after Lucia reached adulthood. Her eventual committal to a mental institution in 1932 (her first of what became many stays) is as terrible as it is incomprehensible: After one of many rows, Lucia throws a chair at her mother, and "Her brother made a snap decision. He had her committed" (82). We're not given any hint previously that anyone in her family thought she had mental issue: She fights with her parents and chafes at their control, yes, but who doesn't, really? In this telling, this "snap decision" signals the end of Lucia's active life - the book ends less than ten pages later. It's a tragedy, without question, but an incomprehensible one here. Surely there has to be more to the story than a simple "snap decision" by her brother.

Mary's own story, growing up the only daughter in a postwar British household, is engaging, if sad: Eager to please but also intelligent and headstrong, Mary constantly runs afoul of her father and his snap-temper. Perhaps the book's most powerful and damning observation appears on page 30: "Claims about men being unable to express emotion irritate me to no end. My father did anger very well." The love story between Mary and Bryan charms though suggestion; there's enough tensions here to sustain a much longer, more detailed narrative.

Visually, the book is divided into three portions: The present-day frame story, in clearly inked full color panels; Lucia's story, in borderless blue-grey; and Mary's story, borderless and primarily in sepia. The borderless panels throughout both help to emphasize the flashback nature of the narrative and allow for some beautifully blended page layouts. In Mary's story, the artwork is the least polished, with preliminary pencil lines and paste-up markings visible. I'm guessing this is somehow to make that section feel more "authentic," perhaps, as it is the author's own memories? I don't know - it doesn't look incomplete, exactly, but it is rougher... maybe to mirror Mary's own pain at "becoming" an adult?

The pages also show evidence that it was a couple who created the book. There are several places where Mary inserts a footnote about something that Bryan got "wrong" (the frilly apron that her mother never would have worn, the favorite children's book of Bryan's that he "snuck " into a montage of her favorite children's books), and a place or two where we see "dueling footnotes" from both author and artist. It's a cute personal touch, but it creates a bit of tension when it comes to how the book presents history: If there are factual errors (such as they are) in the Mary sections, might the same be true in the Lucia sections? If the book were Mary's (and, to a lesser extent, Bryan's) story alone, these moments would seem utterly good-natured and fun; but they introduce questions of authenticity that seem strange in a book that's based as much on research as it is on memory.

Still and all, I'm glad I read Dotter of Her Father's Eyes. It's an enjoyable if at times painful set of true tales, of interest to readers of biography and history and literature. I imagine that, seeing as how it was awarded the Costa prize for biography, it will serve to introduce non-comics readers to the graphic novel format, which is a good thing, and I'm looking forward to what both Mary and Bryan have coming next.

 Dotter of Her Father's Eyes
by Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot
Dark Horse Books, 2012
ISBN-10: 1595828508
ISBN-13: 978-1595828507
94 pages, $14.99