Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #278: The People Inside by Ray Fawkes

The thing about a tour de force is that it can only be done once. Or, at least, that's supposed to be the point. But I guess no one told Ray Fawkes that, because he's followed up his deeply moving work of pure comics, One Soul, with another book equally as amazing and special, equally as purely comics, but different enough to say something new and to take the style of One Soul in a slightly different way.

One Soul was a 2011 graphic novel that made unique use of the comics page: each page was a standard nine-panel grid, with each spread thus having eighteen panels. And each of those separate panels, on each of its seventy-odd spreads, showed one life, from birth to death, in different times and places. Some died early, some lived long, but every panel flipped to black before the end -- everyone dies. Maybe they were all the same soul through time, as the title implied. Maybe they were just different lives. But together they painted a vast picture, drawing in all of humanity in all times and places, making a story about each of us and all of us. It was glorious and sad and lovely and a magnificent achievement.

Three years later, Fawkes is back with another story that casts its net as widely, another story about all of us in our individuality and specificity: The People Inside. Once again, it uses the format of comics, of those standard pages and spreads, to tell a story that's not possible in another medium. (And I'm sorry I read this book digitally: it really deserves to be in print, so each panel is in exactly the same place from page to page.)

This time, each page has six fatter panels, each with a couple. Each spread then has twenty-four people: twelve couples, at the point the book begins. Most are one man and one woman, but nowhere near all. And each couple has its own idiosyncrasies and problems: none are perfect, and none without strife. Like One Soul, The People Inside moves through time, using the visual metaphor of leaves to show that time passing: all the couples begin the book young and strong and energetic and full of fire. And, like One Soul, all of them do not make it to the last page: people die, even those who are loved. And not all love is positive: there's jealousy and anger and even worse.

But People Inside is more complicated than One Soul: it takes place in the modern day, all of the panels and stories at the same time. And not all of these couples stay together, as not all couples stay together in the real world. When they break up, their panels separate: they are no longer part of the same story. And a few couples recombine in different ways, their panels joining along the way. It's a simple metaphor, part of the bedrock of comics, but Fawkes makes it live and breathe: the people in the same panel belong together, are part of the same story. There are more glancing crossovers between characters as well, as if they all live in the same city and pass each other's way every so often.

Fawkes's captions are dreamlike and allusive here, a stream of consciousness internal dialogue for each character -- sometimes in tune between the two characters in a panel, sometimes discordant. And his drawing is precise but stripped-down, making each character both specific and general, each both a type and a person. The People Inside, like its predecessor, is an immense achievement of comics, a major work of art that aims at nothing less than the human condition and hits it solidly. There amy be equally good books published this year, but I doubt you'll find one better.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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