Holiday Eve Gloom Party (or: a graphic novel; Percy)

Percy Gloom

Do you recall this book?

Fantagraphics released it back in June. I recall some good responses appearing at the time, although it appears to have since fallen completely off the critical radar. That's going to happen with some books, particularly some of those from a relatively high volume comics publisher.

I suspect the book may also have been hindered by a lack of any journalistic 'hook' - on first blush, the story appears to be that of a depressive schlub, living at home with hardly a friend in the world, who comes to have a journey of discovery amongst eccentric characters, which isn't the sort of thing that easily attracts attention. The book does not tie in to current events, it has no visible multimedia backing, it does not provide a bridge or connection between comics and anything else, and it represents no particular innovation in publishing, marketing or what the industry is or ought to be. Moreover, it's the first longform comics work by an author, Cathy Malkasian, who has build an artistic life primarily outside of the comics arena, and not in a region typically observed by writers-about-comics - she's a veteran of the Klasky Csupo animation company, and was nominated for a BAFTA Children's Award in the category of Best Feature Film for 2002's The Wild Thornberrys Movie, which she co-directed.

But Percy Gloom needs not retire into whispers quite yet for 2007; it's an attractive, assured book, more interesting than a glance over the synopsis might promise, and well worth considering as the rhetoric turns reflective over the final days of the year.

What stands out most from my reading of this book is its strong filmic impression. Understandable, considering the artist's background. But a closer inspection of the book's visual approach reveals some fairly canny use of comics elements - Malkasian is particularly adept at using pliable word balloons as individually expressive elements, with every spoken word and sound effect given its own unique container that sags and twirls and inflates to match the tenor of whatever is happening. Objects and actions 'speak' in this way, and their voices are discernible. Only in the most intense pages do words ever escape their packages, leaping and scattering like wasps escaping a broken nest.

Yet Malkasian's narrative is paced with enough even-handed propulsion -- and even divided into three handy acts, for your convenience! -- that the comics-centered elements are absorbed by her looming environments and the wrinkled, oval characters that run through them. One can quite easily see this book adapted to feature animation with little fuss; the book's Appendix even sports a closing song, albeit not an awfully traditional one for English-language animated films, even hypothetical ones.

Proponents of comics-as-comics may still be irritated by the work's cinematographic inclination, though I can say that it's fully-formed enough that it escapes the dread label of "film pitch in comics form" - after all, any completed work exists on one level as a suggestion for its own adaptation to another form, no matter how ill-advised a suggestion that might be, so the terms 'pitch' suggests a malformed work that might only claim success through that promotional status. This book is too thoroughly developed for that.

The story concerns the aforementioned schlub of the title, a more nuanced one than expected. The child of a vital, inventive mother and a Gloom father -- a man who exercised the Gloom family ritual suicide option of Death Slap as his son entered the world -- Percy oscillates between crippling uncertainty and indigestion, although he can also literally twist his head like a light bulb to flood his body with glowing joy... getting his head together indeed! Percy also used to be married, but his beloved fell in with funnel-headed cultists, a religious experience that ended in a deadly human rockslide intended to wipe out the cult leader's extensive array of illegitimate children.

So Percy decides to renew himself by leaving his hometown and following his childhood dream of writing cautionary warning labels for Safely Now, a "Cautionary Warning Institute" devoted to divining the dangerous potential of even the most benign-seeming objects (on hairbrushes: "Handle-to-ear danger. Possible hearing loss"), and duly warning the public of such peril. But Percy's simultaneously meek and helpful nature eventually embroils him in an adventure concerning the surrounding town, its dangerous underground, the love of goats, delicious cannibalism, religion as the inspiration for death's terror in contrast with the systemic caution of a legalistic society of commodification, and a deeply unimpressive romantic interest (hers being the interest).

It's a diverting tale, at times insightful in its enthusiasm for metaphor. Malkasian is at her best in detailing how the broad concerns of her characters are supported by their environment (so again, characters running through environments), with mortality's terror being the foremost spook. Organized religion is unwaveringly presented as a destructive impetus for paralyzed thinking and unhealthy living, and the ultimate expression of humankind's natural inclination toward caution. The future, as one might expect, rests in human familial connections, and a future youth that might break down the structures through their play.

The artist is less adept at putting together the lesser embodiments of her concerns - the Safely Now sequences, while amusing, come off as obvious in their social satire and rather tired in their slapstick execution. This is not a subtle book, and some may consider it ham-fisted or sappy; Malkasian is prone to having her characters simply state everything aloud -- from their motivations to underlying themes -- and the result is a tone occasionally more lecturing than fable-like.

This does get a bit grating by the dialog-heavy climax, in which Percy doesn't so much do anything as learn more about himself, while the plot sort of resolves itself off-panel. But that's at least an appropriate narrative jam-up, I think Malkasian's dense organization of analogies and icons is individually impressive - it's a richly declarative approach, and one handled with just enough mind for restraint that her characters never seem to trip over their roles.

That's a tough act in a book like this, and reason enough to pay the work some mind. Easy enough to find online; there's no need for buying immediacy in a bookshelf comics world. The talk may fade, but accessibility lingers - keep it as a possibility.