Wednesday, October 31, 2012

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

Mary Talbot is a professor and scholar with a long list of academic publications; she's also the daughter of noted Joyce scholar (author of The Books at the Wake, still a standard reference to Finnegans Wake) and general unpleasant person James Atherton. Bryan Talbot is the noted graphic novelist and comics-maker behind the Grandville books, Luther Arkwright, Alice in Sunderland, and others.

With Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, they team up for the first time -- as will inevitably happen in the world of comics, though these two didn't, as far as I can tell, fight each other first -- to tell the intertwined story of young Mary Atherton (mostly before she met Talbot, though his long-haired hippie self does show up in the later parts of the book) and of Joyce's daughter Lucia, frustrated dancer and eventual mental patient. The clear connection is their cold, obsessive fathers -- "my cold mad feary father," to put it, as the Talbots do, in Joyce's own words -- and Mary Talbot makes use of that in this heavily narrated book (presented in a typewriter font, as if it were the manuscript the elder Atherton was banging away at for most of Mary's childhood), switching regularly from past to present, from Joyce to Atherton, and around again.

The Talbots don't deliberately try to aggrandize Mary's troubles with her father, and they can't help but seem trivial compared to what Joyce did to his daughter: stifled her career, and any chance at an independent life, and drove her into an asylum for the rest of her life. James Atherton might have been a cold British mid-20th century father, but he wasn't the self-obsessed monster Joyce was -- or, perhaps, Mary Atherton had opportunities in the '60s in England that weren't available in the same way to Lucia Joyce in the '30s. Either way, Mary Talbot makes Mary Atherton look like the lightweight side of the comparison, which isn't good for the book -- Dotter could have been stronger if it had focused entirely on Lucia, whose life provides more than enough drama for a story twice the length.

Of course, that would be a sadder and drearier Dotter, which clearly wasn't the Talbots' intention -- comparing Mary with Lucia allows Mary's life to be a positive example and a potential escape. Still, it does feel unbalanced: Lucia's is clearly the deeper, more dramatic story, and Mary's life, in this context, is interesting mostly due to the parallels, which isn't entirely fair to the writer telling the story of her own life.

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