“If you think of me in a year or two, find that photograph showing me with you – what you see is what should be”
You might recall that I’m a sentimental old softie who digs a well-done romance comic, so I had some hopes for Always Never, which is by Jordi Lafebre (with colors by Lafebre and Clémence Sapin, lettering by Cromatik Ltd., and translation by Montana Kane), which is a nice-looking comic from Dark Horse. And my hopes were realized, so that’s keen.
Lafebre tells the story backward, so it begins at the end, so we know that the two main characters, Ana and Zeno, end up together. The chapter at the end of the book shows us how they met, and in between, we track their relationship backward through the years. It’s not a bad conceit, and it subverts the usual romance story trope – writers always try to pretend the two leads aren’t going to get together, when we know they will, so Lafebre skips all that and shows us the happy ending. What this means is that he can show us their lives, and why they didn’t get together before this, with the full confidence that it will happen. Romances aren’t about the mystery of whether the lovers get together, they’re about the way the lovers reach that point. Lafebre does a nice job with this.
Lafebre cleverly shows the passage of time – both Zeno and Ana are older when they finally get together – and how some things turn out before we get to what set things in motion. In the “first” chapter, the lovers walk over a bridge linking the two sides of their town, and we see over the course of the book how the bridge gets built and how it becomes a metaphor for their relationship (it’s an obvious one, of course, but Lafebre never belabors it, so it becomes more subtle than you might think). In the “second” chapter, Ana tells her daughter what she’s planning to do, and her daughter threatens to tell Ana’s husband (to whom she’s still married, by the way), but Ana tells her that her husband already knows. We don’t see this conversation until later, but it highlights the difference between her daughter, who’s offended by Ana’s plan, and her husband, who accepts it. But that brings up a host of questions about why her husband is so accepting, something that comes out over the course of the book. Meanwhile, her daughter accuses Ana of being selfish, but as we go back through her life, we realize that her daughter was speaking out of ignorance, almost, as Ana is extremely unselfish in her life. So these interesting seeds are planted early on, which the characters are discussing in retrospect but which we don’t know about. Ana and Zeno are kept apart simply by their personalities – Ana wants to stay in their (unnamed) town, while Zeno wants to travel the world – but we see how their relationship develops even though they aren’t together. Zeno is working on his doctorate, and it’s about time travel, so the fact that we’re traveling backward in time is a nifty device. Zeno himself wants to return to his first innocent meeting with Ana, and so the “end” of the book – when they finally get together after years apart – is linked to the “beginning” of the book – the final pages, when they first meet – and it’s a nice Möbius strip of a narrative, with the young Ana and Zeno linked to the old Zeno and Ana. The town “devolves,” but each improvement is explained by something that Ana or Zeno does or knows, and the way Ana’s marriage moves backward through time shows why her husband is so understanding of her dalliance with Zeno. It’s a beautifully constructed story, so that even though we know the ending, it’s never boring. By the end, when Zeno and Ana see each other for the first time, we have a tremendous appreciation for what they’re about to go through and why the beginning of the book – and ending of the story – is so significant for both of them.
Lafebre’s art is superb, as well. He does a wonderful job aging the characters – the book takes place over several decades, after all – and maturing them, from fresh-faced youngsters to experienced senior citizens, and it’s impressive to see it happen backward, as Zeno and Ana grow younger and lose some of their cynicism (not that they have a lot of it anyway, but there are traces of it when they’re older). Lafebre creates a marvelous world, as the town where Ana lives is a beautiful place, full of quirky neighborhoods and interesting buildings, populated by people who are those charming weirdos you often find in romance stories but who are drawn so that they look real and “lived-in,” so they’re not simply stereotypes. Lafebre never makes the town a fairy-tale place – it changes and grows, and progress is both a good thing and a bad thing, but he figures out how to make the town different as the years pass without impinging on its essential character. When we check in with Zeno, who’s out in the wide world, Lafebre gives us storms and ice, as Zeno sails through rough seas and visits wintry places, all in contrast to Ana’s slightly more placid life (“placid” based on her location, which never changes, but not in her life, which is often turbulent). We also get a good sense of the love she and her husband share, as Lafebre draws them beautifully together, and it highlights that her choice at the end (or the beginning, such as it is) isn’t about her being unhappy in her marriage. Lafebre’s fluid linework works well in a book that always feels in motion, as Zeno can’t sit still and Ana is devoted to making her town better, which, again, makes their choice at the end of their lives feel like a decision to finally slow down. The few times they’re together in the book are adorable, as Lafebre does a terrific job with their body language, showing how comfortable they are with each other even though they don’t share a lot of page time. It’s a gorgeous comic, and it helps make the story work better.
I know I’m a sucker for romances done well, and so I’m a bit biased, but this is a really good comic. It’s not overly cloying, and the romance between the two leads feels real, partly because the barriers between them getting together don’t feel artificial. It’s about two people who want to live their own lives, and do, but they also yearn for a thrilling romance, and they spend their lives looking for it. It’s not a sad book by any means, but there’s a slightly bittersweet quality to the romance, mainly because Zeno and Ana don’t get together until the end of their lives, and we’re left wondering if things could have been different. Lafebre does a very good job answering that question, and that’s a part of what makes this so good. I linked to the digital copy below because it seems like the physical copy isn’t available right now on Amazon, which is odd. But I’m sure you can find it somewhere, or you can read it on your favorite device. It’s worth a look!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆