Monday, October 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #291: I Was the Cat by Tobin & Dewey

It's entirely possible to enjoy an entire work of art without understanding it, or figuring out why it exists at all. A reader could reach the final page of a book, with a lady-or-the-tiger ending, and realize that maybe it isn't even supposed to be a lady-or-the-tiger ending, that maybe that reader didn't get the point at all.

(On the other hand, it's also possible that a book is severely flawed and doesn't entirely make sense. But that's what we always assume first, so let's go the other direction this time.)

With that caveat out of the way, here's I Was the Cat, a new graphic novel written by Paul Tobin (of the similarly elliptical Gingerbread Girl and the more straightforward Bandette Presto!, both of those with his wife Colleen Coover) and drawn by Benjamin Dewey (whose work I'm not familiar with). It's smart and professional but has some elements that don't entirely work for me.

In London, American freelance journalist Allison Breaking is trying to eke out a living through some mixture of her blog Breaking News (which we never see at all, nor do we see her ever working on it) and ghostwriting books. London is an expensive city, but Allison is crashing with her friend Reggie, which certainly must keep the costs down. Don't worry: this is all asserted, and has nothing at all to do with the plot of I Was the Cat; Allison's supposed journalistic nosiness is in deep abeyance for most of the book.

Allison has been contacted by a mysterious person named Burma to ghostwrite his memoirs -- but it turns out that Burma is actually the world's only talking cat! Tobin resolutely refuses to descend into teleology; we never find out why Burma can talk or how he came to be. (There are also hints of "others" that go nowhere.) Burma is several thousand years old, which is also asserted rather than explained, and he can change his look and form somehow to become pretty much any cat he wants. Burma is rich and powerful and has spent most of his life in the Pinky-and-the-Brain-esque pursuit of Taking Over the World! Though he says he's had no luck so far, and has lost eight of his lives along the way.

That takes up the first twenty or so pages: after that, I Was the Cat intertwines three plot threads. First, Allison and Reggie sit and listen intently to Burma's stories, though Allison doesn't seem to be making much effort to take notes or organize anything. Second, there are the flashbacks to Burma's earlier lives, which of course are spent among the variously famous and powerful and mostly end badly. Lastly, there are some shadowy activities orchestrated by Burma in the modern day, meant to raise our suspicions about his real intentions.

So this is a deeply odd graphic novel: it's the realistically depicted story of a cat talking about his failed schemes to conquer the world to a pair of appreciative pretty girls, while his latest plot rumbles on in the background. It almost seems like a shaggy dog story without the punchline, as if it were all leading up to a specific moment that gets left out. Note: none of this is funny; it's all played completely straight, with tension and various hard men with weaponry sneaking around doing dirty deeds.

And then the ending just goes poof. I called it a lady-and-the-tiger ending, above, because I think Allison has a couple of choices. But that could just be me projecting: the book doesn't clearly give her any options, it just stops at a moment before the Big Moment.

I Am the Cat looks gorgeous and is full of cats for people who like such things. But it's also a very strange thing that doesn't entirely come into focus, and features the kind of London life that can only be depicted by two guys from Portland. I can't exactly recommend it, but it's definitely weird.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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