Review time! with ‘Snow Day’

“I’m as dark as December, I’m as cold as the Man in the Moon”

On the back of Snow Day, the blurb claims that if you like Fargo, you’ll dig Snow Day. That’s an apt comparison – I hadn’t read the back when I read the book, and I kept thinking it was like Fargo (either the movie or the television show; take your pick). It’s about a mild-mannered cop in a wintry, desolate town, in other words. It’s not as good as Fargo is, but the comparison is certainly apt! Anyway, Snow Day is published by Humanoids and costs #14.95, and it’s written by Pierre Wazem and drawn by Antoine Aubin, with the translation for this volume by Mark Bence. Let’s check it out!

The book is an example of Fargo’s aesthetic – “winter noir,” maybe? – in that there’s a lawman – a sheriff – who doesn’t quite fit in the small town (it’s probably in Montana, as the town is called “Fort Boseman,” which is close enough to “Bozeman” that we’ll let it go) that’s his purview and can’t just let things go along the way they always have. Spencer, the sheriff (let’s assume it’s his first name, but it’s the only one he ever gets), seems to be fairly innocuous, even as the first thing we see him do is get in an argument with the local factory owner, as Spencer arrested three of his workers the night before for drunk and disorderly conduct. Even at this point, Spencer seems like a chill dude (given the name of the book, I realized it as soon as I typed it, but I’m leaving it in!), drinking his coffee and patiently explaining that the men crossed a line. The factory owner, Ross, fetches the mayor, who forces Spencer to let them go. We learn what prompted Spencer to arrest them in the first place, and then he goes out to the factory to arrest them again, which pisses off Ross and the mayor, who confront him. The End. Oh, there’s a woman he likes. Of course he does, but she doesn’t play too big a role in the proceedings.

Wazem certainly doesn’t want to turn this into a bloody shoot-’em-up, as the book wants to be more contemplative than that, so he goes in the opposite direction. There’s some violence, but it’s remarkably restrained, even in the flashback where we find out why Spencer arrested the three men (which Aubin draws much more sketchily than the rest, dampening the impact of the violence even further). Wazem is much more interested in showing a man who really doesn’t fit and what he does when he’s forced to make a decision about what that means. The woman he loves, a waitress at the town’s diner named Kathleen, points out that he shouldn’t be in the town, but throughout, Wazem does some nice character work making us believe it, too. Spencer drives out to the house where he (presumably) rents a room and talks to his landlady, a widowed older woman who tries to mother him. He takes his snowplow out to the factory (as that’s the easiest vehicle to get around in) and gives a girl, Becky, a ride back to town. Becky wants to be an actor and she flirts a lot with Spencer, and Wazem does a nice job showing the difference between a true outsider and one who’s only pretending. Kathleen, who used to date Spencer, sees exactly what kind of person he is, and it’s the reason why she left him – despite his exterior calm, she says there’s always something else pulling at him, and she implies that he’ll never settle down in Fort Boseman because that’s not the kind of person he is. We find out that Spencer is something of a man of the people – he arrested the three men partly because they’re anti-union agitators – and that he’s a romantic, but the other characters, Kathleen especially, still know that he shouldn’t be in the town. The problem with the book is that we come in too late. We don’t know anything about Spencer, so the idea that this incident pushes him over the edge doesn’t really work. He does seem awfully calm about arresting these men, so “getting pushed too far” doesn’t turn him into a Charles Bronson-esque vigilante, but it’s not clear why this is the event that makes him act. We don’t know anything about him, so the arrest and subsequent events don’t have enough of an impact. If we want to go with the Fargo analogy, we get to see what kind of person Frances McDormand is before she gets too far in the crime-solving, which makes her actions as she moves through the plot easier to understand. We know nothing about Spencer, and we don’t really learn too much about him. So this minor crime in a remote town doesn’t seem to matter all that much, not in a grand scale and not even on a human scale. The mayor and the factory owner are corrupt, but it’s on such a small scale that who cares? Why does Spencer? I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about bad factory conditions, but in the context of the story, it doesn’t seem like enough to make Spencer rouse himself.

Maybe it shouldn’t matter. Maybe it’s just the point that Spencer does rouse himself, shaking himself out of the torpor that he’s been in like someone like Becky might never do. But again, we don’t even see the torpor, so it’s hard to make that leap. Just having other characters tell us that Spencer doesn’t belong there gets back to the classic “show, don’t tell” maxim of writing, as Wazem literally has characters tell us about Spencer instead of showing us his state. That’s why the book falls short despite having some nice moments and some deeper themes that seem to be trying to come out.

Aubin does a decent job with the art – it reminds me of Rich Tommaso’s in some places and David Lapham’s in others. He uses thick black lines throughout except in the flashback, where he uses less weight and less detail to create a sketchy memory, which is a good move considering it is a memory of someone telling a story. He doesn’t shade, he just uses more black lines to add shadows and folds to clothing and other details. He draws the starkness of the winter scenes very well, placing Spencer and the others in a bleak landscape that also teems with life, a marked contrast to the factory, where Spencer finds himself hallucinating as he tries to arrest one of the men. Aubin does a very good job contrasting the warm places – Emma’s house, the diner – with the frozen natural landscape and the cold-feeling sheriff’s station and factory, and it’s probably not a coincidence that the women occupy the warm places and the men are in the cold places. He’s not great at action, but he’s decent enough, although someone gets shot at the end and Aubin doesn’t do a good job with showing who got shot and where until a few panels later, and it’s confusing when it first happens (which might be the point, but I hope not). Aubin’s quiet style fits Wazem’s contemplative tone well, and while I wanted more out of the story, the art does a nice job expressing the ideas in the story that are actually there.

There’s a lot to like about Snow Day, but there’s a lot of frustration, too. I can see a complete and fascinating story in it, but Wazem, I guess, wanted to go a different way. Spencer is an interesting protagonist in that even when he’s active, he still seems very passive, and that means we don’t get much from him and have to work a little more, which isn’t the worst way to present a story. It just feels like something is missing from the book, and it makes it hard to love unequivocally. It’s not bad, but it seems like it could be a lot better.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

3 Comments

  1. Corrin Radd

    Not much to add other than I got this from the library a few months ago and enjoyed it. I liked the minimalist aspects of it–it gets a lot of story told using few words, understated art, minimal backgrounds (snow helps there), and no color.

  2. fit2print

    “We don’t know anything about him, so the arrest and subsequent events don’t have enough of an impact.”

    Solid point, though to be fair it’s not uncommon for these cypher-like noir protagonists (along with the rest of us, come to think of it) to suffer from bouts of existential angst for which there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of an obvious cause.

    Nor does there ever seen to be a reasonable explanation for why a certain incident makes such a hero act. It’s all just part of their “personal code” … or so the theory goes.

    You’re right that having such a hero doesn’t always make for riveting storytelling but (and I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know) it’s perfectly in keeping with the genre as it was originally conceived. And as far as that (and Coen Brothers’ films noir) go, “Blood Simple” hews much closer than “Fargo” to the classic noir tradition…

    Oh, and on a side note, I loved this line in your review…

    “Spencer seems like a chill dude (given the name of the book, I realized it as soon as I typed it, but I’m leaving it in!)

    …. mostly because it manages to avoid an error that is a long-time pet peeve of mine — writers who claim “no pun intended” in their pieces when it should be “pardon the pun”.

    That’s right, wordsmiths, if you make the decision to include a pun in a piece of writing, clearly the pun WAS intended. Otherwise you’d have deleted it. Right?

    Thanks for letting me get that off my chest…

    1. Greg Burgas

      fit2print: True enough about random existential angst, but I have a slightly different standard for various forms of fiction. If this were a Camus book, I could probably deal with it better. As it’s more genre fiction, the plot is more paramount, so I would have liked better triggers for it. Movies, of course, have one big advantage over comics – the actor. Often the actor draws us in, so we can forgive gaps in the motivations, because the acting is so riveting. Obviously, in this book, Spencer isn’t “acting,” so the writer has to do more work, in my opinion.

      I’m glad I avoided a grammatical pet peeve of yours – I have mine, of course, and they drive me crazy sometimes! 🙂

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