Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The Man in the McIntosh Suit’

“And the banker never wears a Mac in the pouring rain”

Drawn & Quarterly brings us The Man in the McIntosh Suit by Rina Ayuyang. Let’s take a look at it!

This is a nifty noir story with some nice twists, the biggest and best is that it’s set in the California Filipino community in 1929 and stars a wide array of interesting Filipino characters. In many ways, it’s a fairly standard noir story, but because it features non-white characters, Ayuyang adds a nice level of social commentary to the usual power relationships so prevalent in noir. Which is nice!

Ayuyang begins with (and spends a very long time in) a farm in California, where migrant workers toil for long hours for very little reward. Three Filipinos – Bobot, Angel, and Edison – have a nice bond, and we get a lot of interactions between them to show how their relationship works. Bobot is the most serious of them, as he’s trying to save money to bring his wife to the States, and he keeps writing letters to her … but never hears anything in return. It causes him some consternation, but he doesn’t give up hope. Then he gets some information that makes him believe his wife is actually in San Francisco, so he steals Angel’s suit (so he doesn’t look like a farm worker) and heads to the city. He meets with his cousin and some of the community and begins looking for his wife. Eventually, he ends up at a seedy night club, where the main performer … is his wife? Bobot gets deeper and deeper into this weird story, and he finds it’s very difficult to get out, much like all good noir stories!

There’s a lot going on in the book, and Ayuyang keeps it interesting, and I really don’t want to give too much away. One thing that makes it a more interesting noir story is that no one’s really that evil – people do some bad things, but we can understand why they do them, and the femme fatale (I’ll let you find out who it is!) isn’t trying to get a sap to kill her husband or anything like that. With old noir, we can see that the women who manipulate the saps, while they’re presented as evil, are often using the only means they have to get out of a bad situation, and that’s what happens here, but the situation is not just “a woman in a man’s world,” it’s also “a non-white woman in a white man’s world,” so even though the only truly evil dude in the book is a Filipino, he still plays by the “white man’s world” rules, so the racial dynamic is as in play as the gender dynamic. Unlike your standard noir heroes, Bobot can’t rely on his whiteness to ease the way for him, so he has to live on the margins in San Francisco and avoid getting in the way of the white majority even as he’s trying to uncover the truth about what’s going on. The long beginning on the farm doesn’t set up a lot of the plot – I mean, it certainly sets it up, but it could have been condensed a lot and still worked – but it does create this shadowy world in which Bobot and his fellow countrymen live, so when he arrives in the city and discovers a thriving Filipino community, we still have that sense of marginalization, and Ayuyang does a nice job blending that in to the standard noir tropes. Noir heroes and heroines are always living in the margins to a degree, and Ayuyang understands this well, and she has a ready-made margin for her story, which allows her to give us a hard-boiled tale but also shows how difficult it was for Filipinos coming to the States to find financial independence and discovering that the land of wine and roses might be an illusion. Noir tends to be harsh to its characters, and Ayuyang does a good job showing that it’s not necessarily the noir elements that are harsh, but the actual social conditions in the country. She never pushes it too hard, which is why it works very well in this setting and plot.

I don’t love Ayuyang’s art, mainly because her figures are a bit too blocky and disproportionate – very often their heads look too big for their bodies, and it doesn’t feel like an affectation because it’s not consistent. However, she does a pretty good job with the facial expressions – which is fairly crucial in a book like this – and the settings, as we get a good sense of life on the farm and in the city, and the contrast between them and even the glitzier night club and the more mundane shops of the Filipino community is very nicely done. Despite the use of mostly small panels, she gets across the wide-open stark landscape of rural California, and when Bobot gets to San Francisco, things immediately become more claustrophobic, which fits with the more noir feeling of the city scenes. While the social commentary comes mainly from the writing, in the art you can get a sense of why Filipinos would want to escape a crowded place and come to America – the Filipino community in San Francisco, like a lot of immigrant communities, is shown as very close-knit but also, through Ayuyang’s artwork, as almost stifling, and even though Bobot and his friends work in brutal conditions, the scenes on the farm feel a bit freer for them, due to the way Ayuyang draws the actual space they have. Even where they sleep, which is crowded, feels less claustrophobic than the city. I don’t know how deliberate it is, but it’s an interesting contrast. Ayuyang’s colors are well done, too – the book is mostly blue-toned, but the night club scenes get a lurid pinkish tone, and Bobot’s memories of his wife are colored in a more “realistic” manner, giving us a sense of what he considers “real” in this world as he searches for her. It’s not great art, but it does get the job done, which is nice.

There’s a lot to like about The Man in the McIntosh Suit. It has a good hook, it presents a nice, twisty plot that never gets confusing, and it gives us interesting social commentary without being too blunt about it. I’m pretty sure those are all good things!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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