Thursday, November 10, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Left Bank Gang'

The Book: The Left Bank Gang

The Author and Artist: Jason (colored by Hubert)

How I Found It: My Graphic Lit professor passed it around in class and was kind enough to let me borrow it when I expressed interest. Thanks!

The Review: In the world Jason presents, the most valuable art isn't books--it's comics. In Paris' Latin Quarter in the 1920s, struggling artists F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingay, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce are fighting against artistic blocks and marital problems.

Scott is trying to deal with Zelda's fits of instability and infidelity. Ernest doesn't have the money to support his family. With this in mind, Ernest proposes a radical scheme for how they can get money. The scheme doesn't exactly go off without a hitch, and it's only seeing it from everyone's perspectives that helps the reader come to understand what really happened.

Having just finished discussing Pound, Stein, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway in my American Lit survey, I thought this would be an interesting read. What did it have to say about art, and what did it have to say about the artists? How would the artists, real people of the period, come across on page? I'd seen fictional representations of these people before (this summer's Midnight in Paris was lovely), and though I only have a passing acquaintance with the work of most of these artists, I'm very much interested in them. After reading this, I'm certainly curious to finally dig in to Tender is the Night and A Moveable Feast, to get glimpses of the truth behind their lives.

The choices Jason made were really interesting to me. I can't say I think I fully understand it all, but I'm certainly willing to think about it. The characters are represented by anthropomorphized dogs, which I see now is a trademark of Jason's style. I don't think he does it for the same reasons as Spiegelman did in Maus, say, but I found myself thinking about the reasons anyway. Each character is only distinguished by a color--Fitzgerald is a white dog in a red suit; Hemingway wears orange; Pound wears green. By having the protagonists look so similar, was Jason raising a point--were the members of the Lost Generation really all treading the same path, essentially the same person? (Given what I've read of hers, I think Gertrude Stein would say they were.)

I found myself taking particular notice of the silent panels. Silent panels are probably one of the things I've most enjoyed learning about in the course of my studies this semester, and there are several that have really made me think (a tragic escape from an illegal party in Persepolis, a closeup on a Rorschach inkblot that resembles an abyss in Watchmen), and this book added several more. Scott, alone and devastated, sits contemplating the bottle of alcohol next to him. Hemingway feeds a pigeon and then stealthily kills it, desperate for food for his family. Pound draws a fellow customer at the coffee shop and seems to wonder about her. Often, these sequences carried on for several panels, with characters whose capacity for emotional expression was limited by how they were represented, but I never lost sight of what their thoughts were or what was going on. I give Jason a lot of credit for that.

I really appreciated and enjoyed the commentary on the writers-turned-artists--Tolstoy is criticized because all his characters "look the same." Zelda used to help Scott with his artwork; from what I can remember, Zelda helped him with his writing at times. Gertrude Stein offers the young Hemingway some harsh but helpful advice. The choice to have everyone be comic book artists rather than writers was another thing that made me think. Was Jason positing the idea that comics are something to be valued as highly as we value novels? Was he being ironic?

Perhaps my favorite part of the book was the shifting perspectives towards the end. I've said before that I'm a sucker for multiple narrators or perspective shifts (only when done well, though), and it worked perfectly here. Nothing truly fits together until you see that final piece, and even if parts of what went on were obvious, I was captivated by how minute shifts of perspective made all the difference.

I couldn't find anything at all to dislike in this book, and I'd even like to own a copy someday. It's a fast read, but one subtle enough that I'd like to return to it a few more times--knowing more about Jason, about Fitzgerald and Hemingway, about the other artists mentioned, or just to appreciate the craft and skill that went into it. Recommended to fans of the Lost Generation!

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