“All your life you were only waiting for this moment to be free”
I still haven’t read Indeh, the first collaboration between Ethan Hawke and Greg Ruth, but I’ll get to it eventually. I did read Meadowlark, their latest, which is brought to us by Grand Central Publishing. It’s a “coming-of-age crime story”! You know I love those coming-of-age stories!
As you ought to know, Ruth is a superb artist, one of the best working today, and everything he draws has a great deal of merit simply because he draws it. His art on this book is stunning, as his work is a bit more … I don’t want to say “delicate” in a book filled with violence, but it’s clear that he’s using a brush more than he used to, and he’s able to shift very easily between the pages of beauty and the pages of brutality. He also is able to make the clothing, for instance, look a bit less “heavy” while still making the violence have an impact. Ruth has (in some cases, famously) done a lot of work with pens, but it’s clear he doesn’t need to stick to that. For a lot of the background work, he uses a very light line, which makes the buildings and other signs of civilization almost fade away, placing the focus on the characters but also giving us a sense that the men in the book (there’s two women in the book, and while they’re important characters, they’re not in this for too long) are detached from this civilization and are out beyond the borders, which is true. This is more evident when Cooper and his dad have to walk through the woods toward the end of the book – Ruth gives the trees and bushes more heft than the buildings, so not only do they seem more real, they also seem to “fit” the characters more. And when Cooper arrives at his house after getting through the woods, Ruth’s use of heavier lines gives it a permanence that Cooper, after having been through a lot during the day, desperately needs. His characters are terrific – Cooper’s dad, Jack, is strong, but he’s also a bit beaten down by life, as his boxing career never turned into something great and he feels like he’s disappointing his son. Cooper is a typical teenager, and Ruth draws him with a nice combination of teen arrogance and teen fear, and at the end, when Cooper needs more resolve, Ruth does a nice job showing how he finds it. His violent scenes are beautifully staged, as Ruth gives us tiny, brutal moments that show how horrifying violence can be, and in one instance, he shifts between Jack fighting in the present and his boxing career, linking the two nicely but also using lighter lines and a little less precision in the flashbacks to set them apart. His light sepia coloring is done well, too, as it gives a sense of the Texas landscape, dreary and unforgiving. It’s an absolutely gorgeous comic, which isn’t surprising coming from Ruth, but it’s still nice to see.
I don’t know how Hawke is as a prose writer (the few excerpts I’ve read of his book can best be described as “turgid”), and as I noted, I didn’t read his first comic, but he’s smart enough to get out of Ruth’s way, and a comics writer who knows when to get out of his artist’s way is already well on his way to being a good one. He and Ruth wrote this together, as Ruth is a good writer himself, and it’s clear that this is a good dual effort. There’s nothing too shocking about the plot, but they tell it well and Hawke knows to let Ruth set the mood. Jack Johnson, who is nicknamed “Meadowlark” (it’s not clear why, although I’m sure there’s a clever reason for it), is an ex-boxer who now works at a prison in Huntsville. He’s divorced from his wife, and he doesn’t get to see his son, Cooper, as much as he’d like, but one day he shows up and wants to take Cooper to school, but he doesn’t know his son has been expelled (Cooper doesn’t seem like a bad kid, but he does have some issues, obviously). So he takes Cooper to work, but while they’re there, there’s a prison break. Giving that this is marketed as a “coming-of-age crime story” (it’s right there on the cover!!!), it’s not too much of a stretch to figure out that Jack is involved in the prison break, and he and Cooper soon discover that they’ve grabbed a tiger by the tail, and things spiral violently from there.
So it’s not the most original story, but what is, right? Hawke and Ruth do an excellent job keeping Jack’s involvement “secret” as long as possible, as we don’t get confirmation of it until we’re 90 or so pages into the story. They set up Cooper first, as Cooper is a more important character than Jack, and they do a good job showing that Cooper might be a bit messed up, but he’s a decent kid, and his mother and stepdad are doing their best even though Cooper idolizes his dad. Jack is also a good character, and the writers shows us the rage simmering underneath the surface even though he also seems decent enough, and he obviously wants to be there for his son and it kills him that he can’t be. Hawke and Ruth do a lot of work with the dialogue, allowing the characters’ personalities to come out slowly through the way they talk to each other. It’s oblique, as the best dialogue often is, but it still shows us a lot about Jack and Cooper and the other people in the book. When things start getting bad, they don’t overwrite, although we still get a story from Jack’s life that, as we often see in fiction like this, provides a vital life lesson for Cooper. Mainly, Hawke and Ruth do a good job in the early stages of the book setting up the characters, which means that Ruth can do the heavy lifting at the end. I don’t love how the book ends, because it’s a bit too fantastical (not in a “elves show up” way, but in a slightly unrealistic way), but it’s not a terrible ending. But for the most part, the writers do a very good job with his story, hitting a lot of the beats we expect but not in the usual ways, which makes it more interesting to read.
Meadowlark is an excellent comic, and it’s not just because of Ruth’s amazing art. Hawke and Ruth give us a fairly simple story that has a lot of power in it, as they don’t necessarily do what we expect. It’s a beautiful book, and it’s definitely one you should check out.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆