Thursday, March 18, 2021

To Have and To Hold by Graham Chaffee

I feel like I say this a lot, but: the comics world is big. There are entire countries full of people making comics that I pay almost no attention to -- probably the same for you. And even in our own countries, there are almost separate industries side-by-side: Big Two, Small Press, YA, Self-Pub. And, on top of all of that, comics take a long time to make. So many creators are like comets: they only come around once a decade or so, long enough that we forget about them, or almost, in between.

So I don't mean any insult when I say that I don't know Graham Chaffee's work. To Have and To Hold was his 2017 book; as far as I can tell, it's still his most recent. Before that, he had a couple of graphic novels (The Big Wheels and Good Dog) and a book of shorter stories, over almost thirty years. I haven't read any of them, that I remember. I haven't been to his tattoo shop in LA, either, but it's interesting to see a cartoonist also working in that very specific art form. I feel like I see a lot of comics-makers who also do advertising art or spot illustration -- all the things you can do at a drawing board in your own house, the same place you make your comics -- and fewer who are doing art on people's bodies and mural walls and gallery paintings out in public.

So I come to this cold. To Have and To Hold is a dark, noir-ish tale set in 1962: we see the Cuban Missile Crisis stirring in the background on the opening pages, to set the scene. That's not actually important for the story, and doesn't really come back it, but it does effectively set a time and place and mood. We're in a city somewhere in the US: if Chaffee says where, I didn't catch it.

Lonnie and Kate are married. Not well, at this point. We see quick flashbacks to their happy days, soon after the war, before life soured and aged both of them. They're now both on the edge of middle age and deeply unhappy with the choices they've already made and the choices they have in front of them. Lonnie used to be a cop, with a rising career, before some unsanctioned activity knocked him off the force and into private security work. Kate works in an bank, where she's having an affair with the manager. We know most of that almost immediately: not all the details, but the signposts of failed career and secret affair.

Lonnie finds out about the affair, and makes plans to get even. Not in any obvious way, but in the sneaky way of a man who always thinks he can figure out an angle to come out ahead and hasn't yet realized that his angles have not worked for him once yet. There will be crime, there will be violence, there will be sex.

No one will come out of this well: not Lonnie, not Kate, not any of the other people he pulls into his schemes or she enlists to keep her affair quiet. And it all ends the way a noir story needs to, with a confrontation and sudden action and immediate departures. It ends well. It's a strong noir. Chaffee draws it all in an inky style that nods at the mid-century world but is modern and clean. He's good with expressions, both faces and bodies -- I want to say that's the tattooist in him, always watching how people move and react.

You should read it. I should maybe keep an eye out for Chafee's other books.

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