by Derek Royal
When I think about comics and Canadian publishers, Drawn and Quarterly immediately comes to mind. Since 1990, they have been a leader in publishing the work of North American “alternative” artists (e.g., Chester Brown, Julie Doucet, and Adrian Tomine) as well as translations of European and Japanese comics, introducing English speakers to creators hitherto unknown or unavailable. Another such Canadian publisher, Conundrum Press, is perhaps not as well-known, but they deserve to be on more readers’ radar. Like their national compatriot, they do their share of European translations, one of the most recent of which is Willy Linthout’s What We Need to Know. Prior to picking up this graphic novel, I was unfamiliar with the Belgian artist, but it’s through efforts such as Conundrum’s that I and other readers are able to expand our comics-reading vistas.
Linthout is perhaps best known for his Urbanus comics, a collaboration with the Belgian comedian and writer, Urbanus Servranckx, but it was his 2007 work, The Year of the Elephant, that brought him pronounced critical recognition. Written as response to his son’s suicide, that book was nominated for several international awards and won Linthout the Bronzen Adhemar, the most important Flemish award in the comics medium. What We Need to Know is framed as the sequel to The Year of the Elephant. In that earlier book, Linthout wrote a thinly disguised autobiography in fictional form — the protagonist, Charles Germonprez serves as the author’s alter ego — to help him come to terms with his son’s death. This recent book concerns not so much Charles, but the entire Germonprez family and their interactions (at times highly comedic) concerning family relations, aging, alcoholism, caretaking, living alone, and, yes, dealing with death. And many of the answers they seek to life’s problems, at least according to the family matriarch, can be found in the hodgepodge reference book that she has compiled for just this purpose, one entitled “What We Need to Know.”
At first, not having read the earlier book, I felt at a bit of a loss getting acclimated in the narrative world of What We Need to Know. The first chapter, “Rice Pudding,” takes us right into the heart of the Germonprez family, with Ma at home with her two older sons, Walter and Roger, discussing what she will fix for dinner with relatives coming over. (Both sons are now grown, although Walter is still living with his mother.) She also is complaining that her toenails are too long and soon begins reminiscing about her dead husband, Gussie. Given the context, I had wondered if there was vital information on the family dynamics that I had missed by not having read The Year of the Elephant, but soon enough, by chapter two or three, you get a sense of character and how each of the family members interact with the others. Perhaps knowledge of the earlier graphic novel would have fill in gaps quicker, but by the middle of the book, the roles and expectations are pretty well established.
The narrative comprises eight chapters, each of which could conceivably stand on its own as a brief story segment — complete with exposition, complication, climax, and resolution — but taken together, map out a larger trajectory that encompasses the Germonprez family as a whole. Ma (at least at first) and Walter are arguably the central protagonists of this book, with each attempting to come to terms with familial loss. For Ma, the crucial event is her loss of her husband, Gussie, and she spends almost as much time remembering her past — and fantasizing about encountering the spirit of her dead husband — as she does engaging with her sons. Walter’s loss comes later in the book after Ma dies and he has to fend for himself. He is a confirmed bachelor with a fairly comfortable life, seeing to (and putting up with) his mother while he lives his own life…which, from the stories we get, amounts to nothing much more than household chores and drinking at the pub with his friends. After his mother passes, however, his world begins to break down. By the last two chapters, “Soap Bubbles” and “The Get-out-of-Bed Bottle,” he lets himself go and eventually ends up buried in empty beer bottles and an inability to get his life together.
Charles, who is the central figure in The Year of the Elephant, plays a relatively minor character in this book. He makes brief appearances every now and again, but in chapter 4, “The Letter,” his role becomes more central. Here is where we learn of the suicide of his son Jack, and how it devastates him. (Not having read The Year of the Elephant, I am unsure what kind of narrative overlap, or even difference, there is between Charles’s story here and that in the previous book.) Still, most of the focus in this section is on Ma’s inability to accept Jack’s suicide — she doesn’t even attend the funeral — and Charles’s angry reaction to her responses.
What We Need to Know is not about one figure, but an entire family. The interactions among the members are all sketchy and tentative, represented most effectively through Linthout’s illustration style. His art here has an unfinished look, pencils without ink, reflecting the rough, uncertain psychological state of his characters. The individual stories that make up the larger narrative arc of the book may concern pedestrian matters, but the broader ramifications of the family dynamics tell a deeper story. What might at first appear to be brief exercises in levity turns out to be, on closer inspections, a more coherent and bittersweet meditation on family foibles.
Get your copy of Willy Linthout’s books, as well as other publications from Conundrum Press: