“Swore she could see their dreams go by, all cars and stars and buy buy buy”
The Forever Maps, a new graphic novel by Michael Lagacé (who wrote and lettered it) and Todor Hristov (who drew it) and published by Scout, is one of those books that works pretty well, is entertaining, has some very good scenes in it, and comes oh so close to being great but doesn’t quite achieve it. Does that mean it’s not worthwhile? Of course not! So let’s take a look at it!
The idea behind the book is pretty clever. A narrator begins by telling his audience about his early life – he was born in York, Canada (the future Toronto) in 1777, and he didn’t have a good relationship with his overbearing father, who used to beat his mother. A fairly typical scenario, but not a bad one. His father wants his son – whose name is John – to study law, but John decides to run away from home instead. In the forest outside of town he meets a man who’s about to be attacked by a wolf, and he helps chase it off. The man is slightly crazed and clutching a rolled-up map, and he leads John to a small box that contains … another map. The man doesn’t want to take the map, but John does, and so begins his life of torment. The maps keep him alive – he ages, but very, very slowly – but they only lead to other maps, so if John wants to stay young, he can never settle down. Not a bad hook. He returns home briefly and tells his father he’s going to study law, but at Columbia in New York, so he can be away from his father. He spends his time finding maps, and of course, he misses his mother’s death because he can’t be bothered to read his father’s correspondence. This is, naturally, just a taste of the despair that lies ahead for him.
Legacé doesn’t do anything too crazy with the plot – we kind of expect John to get married, and he does, and he has a son, which causes a lot of trouble for him. A good deal of the book is his relationship with his son – his wife dies in childbirth – and how he tries to be better than his own father. There isn’t a lot of room for women in this story, as Legacé is mostly concerned with how John’s poisonous relationship with his overbearing father colors the way he raises his own kid. He tries to do things differently than his father, but because of his own obsession, he ends up damaging his son as much as his father damaged him. It’s not a particularly revelatory point, but because of the fantasy aspect of the book, Legacé is able to come at it from a different angle, which means he can be a bit more subtle about it. John’s father beat him and his mother and was obsessed with John becoming a person of importance simply because it would reflect well on him. John doesn’t beat his son, but he abuses him nevertheless, and his own obsession with living forever twists his son in ways he hadn’t expected. The book ends how you expect it to end, but Legacé gets there in an interesting way, so it’s all right.
There are some issues with the book. Legacé doesn’t give us much about John before he finds the maps, so there’s never an indication of why he wants to live forever. Perhaps Legacé assumes that everyone wants to live forever, and maybe he’s right, but if so, everyone still has different reasons for it. When John finds the old man and the maps, he’s running away from a father who despises him and a mother who’s too weak to protect him. At that moment, it seems like he would rather die than live, yet he immediately latches onto the maps. Later, when he falls in love, he still doesn’t give up the maps – he figures out that if he stops looking, he’ll age so quickly as to die almost immediately, but it also seems like he would have at least some time before that happens, and he understands that he’s destroying lives, so he comes off looking selfish. He’s obsessed, of course, and that clouds judgement, but in order for the audience to sympathize with him, his obsession needs to be comprehensible, and the genesis of John’s isn’t. Once he’s hooked, sure, it’s easy to see why he continues, but getting there doesn’t work as well as it should.
Hristov does very nice work with the art – he uses rough brush strokes to create a harsh world, one that John has to endure and survive rather than one he can thrive in. He uses thinner lines when John finally finds love, but the rougher work returns after John’s wife dies and he heads back out into the world again. Hristov does a wonderful job showing what happens with John’s son – it’s horrific and powerful, and it’s clever, too, because we see a monster but not the one that is physically monstrous. He uses a lot of single-tone coloring and shading to create the rougher look of the old days, and as we move into the present, he adds more but still muted colors, which is interesting. It’s a nice-looking book, and gets across the idea of John living for centuries very nicely.
There’s a lot to like about The Forever Maps. It takes a nice conceit and turns it into a psychological drama, a powerful indictment of how fathers treat their sons. It’s not perfect, but it is a good, solid read, with quite good artwork. There’s nothing wrong with that!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆