One thing that has frustrated me about comics overall is that there seems to be very little concern for POV. One could argue that the medium borrows more from film than it does from literature, and employs the same shifting scale as Meltzer and Coppola, but I actually think that this would just be apologizing after the fact. I honestly don’t feel most writers in comics even consider the idea of POV narratives, that it’s not something that has yet been built into the language of the art form (just as we don’t have a firm distinction of what makes a graphic novel vs. novella vs. the neither form many of the mainstream collections seem to be). I have pushed for it in my own editing life when I see stories that have unnecessary side-trips, where what is really the main character can be stayed with, but have more often than not been vetoed. Which is fine, that is the creator’s will—but I’d still love to make a case for it.
For instance, on my way back from NYC, I picked up Michel Rabagliati’s Paul Has a Summer Job. I have not read any of Rabagliati’s work previously, but had heard good things about this one, so I opted for it over Iron Wok Jan when puzzling over the graphic novel section in the San Francisco airport bookshop.
Paul Has a Summer Job is a charming book, focusing on a young Canadian in search of his purpose who ends up working at a burgeoning camp for poor youth in 1979. He narrates the story, and for the most part, the camera stays on him. Unfortunately, on page 18, we get the first of several shifts away from Paul’s POV for expository information featuring other characters. In that first instance, it’s four panels of Paul’s parents discussing him after he has just left the room. I experienced some of the same jarring that I felt in The Millionaires, but this is one that can’t be leavened by technique. In fact, my main problem with the shifts to third person in Paul Has a Summer Job is how unnecessary it is. Those four panels on page 18 reveal nothing outside of his mother being concerned and his father saying “I was like that at his age,” and don’t really give us any further insight into the parents. We have already seen in their interaction with Paul that they do, in fact, care for him and he just misunderstands, so why break the fabric of the narrative? Was that even thought about when the book was being put together? (Clearly, I can’t speak for any of the authors’ intentions in this discussion—I am looking completely from an outside vantage. From my own third person POV, as it were. I intentionally avoided listing any books I worked on that I have had these discussions about, because I am not sure if it’s fair to my colleagues to actually reveal their process/thinking.)
Overall, this is my main problem with the third person digressions through the whole of Paul Has a Summer Job. There are some arguments to be made for the fact that this is a visual media, and you could be a stickler for, say, Rabagliati showing both sides of the phone conversation on pages 21 and 22—but since Paul is actually hearing the other side of the conversation, he actually would have a mental image that can be related. No, I object to the scenes where Paul is relating information that he has no clear connection to, now real way to know what is happening in a place he wasn’t at, and thus breaks me from the narrative thread. For example, on page 99, when Annie leaves Paul to yell at Francois for not informing them that they would have a blind girl in the current crop of campers, does it really give us any information that we, as the reader, need to know? That she is mad and that Francois didn’t consider it an issue because Marie is so self-sufficient? We already have seen the anger, and we will see (show, don’t tell) Marie’s abilities? But even if Rabagliati wanted to show that scene, would it be so hard to have a caption from Paul that says, “I would later find out that Annie really let Francois have it,” thus giving us a viable reason as to how Paul, our storyteller, would know the details of their conversation?
None of these concerns keeps Paul Has a Summer Job from being a good book. On the contrary, I quite enjoyed it. It’s just from a strictly critical standpoint, I think the author could have made some choices that were a little more in line with literature and exercise more control over his narrative. I have similar issues with Craig Thompson’s new book, Blankets, which I consider to be a nearly perfect comic book and possibly one of the most important works the field has ever had—the sort of bridge between the comics audience and the mainstream audience that we’ve tried to dress up other, less-accessible graphic novels as being. Yet, Blankets falls into the same traps.
Blankets is the semi-autobiographical tale of Craig Thompson’s own youth. It is told from his POV, and he essentially plays himself. It’s a massive book, clocking in at 582 pages—was there ever a graphic novel published that was this long and not serialized first? It’s pretty tight overall, without much breaking away from Craig and seeing other characters outside his field of vision. In fact, it doesn’t really occur until Craig goes and visits Raina, his first love. When that happens, we occasionally get snippets of what is going on with Raina’s disintegrating family. In some cases, it’s information Craig could receive later, like on page 216 when Raina’s mom makes her write a note to her father on the mother’s behalf, detailing her schedule for the next day. This is something Raina could have, and likely would have, told Craig—but wouldn’t it have been a better scene for us witnessing the telling, getting it from Raina’s mouth rather than flat story?
Later, though, we get scenes revolving around Raina’s dad that don’t really bring anything to Craig’s story, and don’t even really give us any better insight to the father than his own conversation with Craig on page 241. Even worse is the incident between the father and the Down’s Syndrome brother, Ben, beginning on 348. It’s a wonderfully handled scene, and shows us that Ben is becoming completely displaced from his family—but it’s not really important to the main story, or even to Ben’s place in it. Only his estrangement from Raina, which is a direct result of Craig’s presence, is essential to the story—so why break out of it for a scene our narrator would have no knowledge of?
Really, Blankets is the best argument I can think of in favor of a focused POV in comics. Craig Thompson’s story is the story of an artist, and since everything is related through an artist’s eyes, he is not bound by the constraints of reality. Craig can bend and warp and abstract the landscape to fit the mood of the moment, thus turning a group of jocks into laughing, demonic creatures or Raina’s bedroom into a swirling mass of texture and color reflective of the quilt she made him. It’s an extension of the childhood imagination we see at work in the tales of Craig and his little brother imagining their bed is a ship at sea—and it’s a technique I think unique to comics. Prose couldn’t sufficiently handle the surreal aspect of the imagery, and in film, the effects would likely overshadow the story. So why not keep that POV pure?
Current Soundtrack: an archived John Peel show on the BBC; Ride, Carnival of Light