“And though we never found the key behind it all, I think we came to know the meaning of the fall”
Every once in a while, Ray Fawkes does a graphic novel all by himself, as opposed to simply writing a comic, and I get them because they’re usually interesting, and so I picked up One Line, his latest book, which is published by Oni. Let’s take a look at it, shall we?
Fawkes does something similar in his most critically acclaimed books – One Soul and The People Inside – that he does in this one. He uses a nine-panel grid – really two nine-panel grids on facing pages – to tell several different stories. In One Line, he creates 18 different characters, one for each panel, and follows their descendants over several hundred years (after a brief prologue that takes place in the Stone Age). He starts in the 1700s (or perhaps the 1600s; it’s a bit unclear) and ends in the modern day, and each panel shows a moment in the characters’ lives, until their lives end and their child takes over the panel. As in Fawkes’s other books in this format, when a person dies without issue, his or her panel goes black for the remainder of the book. It’s a simple but effective technique.
Fawkes gives us people from all over the world – Paris, Venice, Vienna, Morocco, China, Japan, Australia, the American West before the arrival of the white people, Ireland, Scandinavia – and links a few of the people – at the beginning, there are brothers in Venice and sisters in Vienna, and throughout the book, those panels are linked a bit more than the others, naturally (although the generations go their own ways, obviously), but Fawkes links a few of them in other ways, too, which is nice. As Fawkes has just one panel per page to illuminate his characters’ lives, he’s very careful about what he shows, making sure it’s meaningful. And his narration – no one ever “speaks” in the comic, they just narrate – is well linked, as occasionally the people are experiencing very similar things and Fawkes makes sure the narration echoes what some other person is “thinking,” and when the characters occasionally collide, Fawkes does a nice job showing the point of view of each person and how they react to the meeting, given their histories. It’s difficult for writers to create characters that have certain prejudices and not have them feel like clichés, because most writers don’t have the time to delve too far into characters’ histories. As Fawkes is working with an extremely long timeline, we’re able to see how one character, for instance, might become a Nazi but still not want to persecute Jews. Neither Fawkes nor I are making excuses for the Nazis (and the Nazi character isn’t sympathetic by any means), but Nazis certainly didn’t spring full-grown from the forehead of Hitler. They were made, the same as anyone, and it’s interesting to see how this particular Nazi is shaped by his history. In a similar fashion, each character becomes something different from their progenitors, even as their lives are shaped by their mothers and fathers and grandparents. Some become better, others become worse, some do things that we think are awful because we’ve seen their history, while they don’t understand what their parents or grandparents were doing so they ruin their work. It’s a fascinating look at the way humans change, not always because they want to, but because society changes around them and forces it on them. Fawkes doesn’t really take sides in the book – some characters are “better” morally than others, naturally, but Fawkes doesn’t seem to favor anyone, just shows how their lives unspool – and therefore we get a wide tapestry of human existence. He’s fairly subtle about his point at the end, that interconnectedness is objectively a Good Thing, as many people today still think a small tribe is the way to go and reject a wider human community, but Fawkes gets to that point rather well, and the book ends on a nice hopeful note.
I don’t love the book, though. It’s a good read, but like the other “experiments” that Fawkes has done in this format, it’s not great. Part of the problem is that his art, while adequate, isn’t superb, and his self-imposed panel limitation means that he has to do a lot with the small space, and he’s not always up to the task. His use of perspective isn’t always strong, and when he focuses in on characters, his lack of details occasionally makes the drawings look a bit silly, which is not the way he wants to go. When he goes a bit more expansive, he can do some nice work, and the lack of details doesn’t always work against him, but it’s enough that the art becomes something that is simply a vehicle for the story, rather than an enhancement of the story. The format he uses, with one panel per page to tell a character’s story, is clever but has its limitations. It’s difficult to care too much about the characters, because while the overall scope of Fawkes’s narrative is impressive, the moments of their lives are harder to appreciate because they are so fleeting. Again, I get that that’s kind of the point, but in all of these kinds of books that Fawkes has done, it’s always hard to really love it because of the way he tells the story. I get that I might be in the minority here, but Fawkes’s books always seem to be more interesting experiments than actual great pieces of literature, and I like to support them but don’t really love them. I live in hope, though, which is why I keep getting them!
So that’s the latest Ray Fawkes comic. If you got his previous two in this format and dug them, I have no doubt you’ll dig this one. It’s a nifty comic, certainly, and there are many things to recommend it, but I still don’t think it’s a great book. But I’m glad it’s out in the world!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆