“And the shame was on the other side; oh, we can beat them forever and ever”
Parallel is an admirable and interesting book that comes close to greatness but doesn’t quite achieve it. Read on to find out why! It’s from Oni Press, and it’s by Matthias Lehmann (and translated by Ivanka Hahnenberger).
This comic, as the title hints, tells two stories about the same dude, Karl Kling, at two different times in his life. He’s a German soldier in World War II, and after it’s over, he settles down, gets married, and tries to live a normal life. In the 1980s, he’s living alone and trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter. In case you can’t figure out from the cover, Karl is gay, and that informs the book, as homosexuality was illegal in Germany until after the Cold War (even in the West, although it was more tolerated there). Lehmann tells the story of Karl realizing he’s gay in the late 1940s and 1950s, and then how he plans to deal with it in the 1980s. It can be a gripping book thanks to these two lenses, set decades apart.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Karl is under pressure to conform, as he marries his boss’s daughter and has a son with her. There are a few scenes from the war, and it’s clear Karl knows he’s gay, but perhaps doesn’t quite have the words for it yet. After the war, he immediately begins drifting away from his wife, even though he doesn’t really understand his inner desires yet. He gets drunk one night and kisses a man in front of witnesses, but he’s able to pass it off as drunkenness. Eventually, of course, he succumbs to his desires, and that leads to the dissolution of his marriage and the loss of his job, not to mention the physical abuse he endures. He leaves town, but once he re-establishes himself elsewhere, he marries again and has a daughter. He tells his new wife that he’s changed, but of course he hasn’t, and he begins meeting up with other men fairly quickly. Of course, his second marriage falls apart, even though he does try to work on it. In the present, he’s trying to find his daughter, because he misses her, and he writes letters to an address he has for her (he doesn’t know if it’s the right one anymore) explaining what happened and who he is. Even in the 1980s, he’s not out of the closet, and his friends keep trying to set him up with women. Finally he’s able to come out to a friend, which goes better than he expects, and he’s able to open up more to his daughter, as the book is leading us toward a point where we’re going to find out if his daughter will respond to him. That’s pretty much it!
It’s a good story, and Lehmann does a good job with it – he makes it clear that society is putting pressure on Karl, of course, but he doesn’t hammer it home as much as some might do. One place I might have wanted it a bit more is because, as I noted, homosexuality is illegal, and Karl lives in the East, so it seems like his activities might be a bit more dangerous than they seem to be … but that’s a minor point, because Karl is somewhat circumspect, so it would be hard, if someone wanted to, to really pin anything on him – everything is rumors, which of course can ruin a person even if they can’t put him in jail. Mainly, Lehmann just tracks his life and the hardships he experiences as a gay man, and I appreciated that he really didn’t make Karl all that admirable a person. I mean, sure, he’s being persecuted and ostracized by a society that demands strict conformity to a set of moral standards, and it’s a tragedy that even toward the end of his life, he can’t be honest with people, but he’s also not exactly willing to stand up to that society, either, even a little bit, like some of the men with whom he has liaisons do. Karl wants the bland, domestic life, and he’s not willing to cut the cord even though he knows he’s hurting his wives and his children. Like most writers, Lehmann equates sex with love, and Karl can’t seem to keep his dick in his pants, even though he doesn’t really care too much about the men he’s screwing. If he doesn’t love them, why take the chance just to fuck them? It’s a question that very few writers ever tackle, and it weakens the book a little, because it doesn’t seem like something Karl would be willing to wreck his life over. In the “present,” he’s less interested in sex, and his life is not in any danger, even though it’s a bit more tragic because he still can’t come out as gay. It’s a bothersome point, because when Karl does yearn for intimate contact, Lehmann does a nice job both with minimalist writing and excellent, expressive art … but it just leads to furtive sex, which undercuts the emotional resonance of what Karl is dealing with. It is an interesting take – Karl never comes to terms with his own sexuality, at least not in the scenes set in the past, so why should anyone else cut him any slack? Even in the “present,” he – understandably – hasn’t dealt with it, so it makes it harder for others to, because they don’t know the entire picture. Only when Karl is honest with himself can he move forward. It just seems like he takes far too long to get there. Lehmann largely ignores the political factor in all this, so it becomes more about Karl being kind of a jerk instead of hiding who he is because he might actually be imprisoned or killed because of who he is. That makes his reticence a bit harder to account for.
While I enjoy the story but think it could have been better, Lehmann’s art is very nice. He uses a thin but solid line without a lot of hatching, which opens the art up for a lot of gray washes, which add a lot of gorgeous nuance to the work. He uses chunky blacks well to add worry lines to Karl’s face, implying the burden he’s carrying, and the washes make the background hazy and almost ethereal, as if Germany itself becomes a dream world, one that Karl is not a part of. Lehmann takes an almost casual approach to the destruction wrought by the war, as it’s in the backgrounds in some places but just part of the landscape, which is how it is, as society needs to move on, but it’s also a scar on the world like the war leaves scars on those who live through it. Lehmann’s subtle point is that Germany is rebuilding, but Karl can’t quite because the society is still not rebuilt in a way that he can be open about who he is. His characters are nicely done – Karl is the dominant character, of course, but each person has interesting characteristics that make them feel more real, and none are really villains, which makes the tragedy of Karl’s life all the more effective, as his second wife, for instance, desperately wants him to be “normal” and can’t comprehend why he isn’t. She’s not a bad person (and it’s telling that in the “present,” he can still hang out with her occasionally), but she can’t understand him, and Lehmann does a nice job showing that. The art works well to help tell the story, and that’s always nice to see.
Parallel is a good comic, don’t get me wrong. It has some issues, sure, but its good parts outshine its lesser parts both in quality and quantity. Give it a look!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆