Within the global economy of comics, there are many unavoidable blind spots. A significant part of this is the lack of wider access to comics traditions from more peripheral countries, due to their little clout when facing major production centers (more often than not, the U.S., France, and Japan), the absence of a stronger translation market, the lack of enough sufficiently open international venues of discussion – comics still lack the same sort of international exchange that we witness in the artworld, music, or cinema — among other issues. As a Portuguese comics critic, one may be suspicious of my personal wish of integrating Portuguese comics within a larger assessment, of course. After all, it may be personal interest speaking, or worse, nationalist discourse. I have participated in Paul Gravett’s 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die as a writer, but have not participated in the choices. I was at one time positively surprised that the book included one Portuguese title and also vexed that it was only one. Then again, other linguistic traditions were also underrepresented. And perhaps others were over-represented. Sky Doll is fun, sure, but do we really have to read it before we die?
Having said this, I do believe that there are some instances of Portuguese comics that should warrant a wider, international attention. Although we should be wary with the discourses about “comics growing up” (see the excellent Christopher Pizzino’s Arresting Development for this matter), the truth is that it is the “graphic novel” and the “mature content” condiments that help for such circulation. And being published in English can’t hurt either.
Francisco Sousa Lobo is a contemporary Portuguese author that has been producing intellectually and emotionally demanding books at a frantic pace since 2013. After a few short pieces in the early 2000s, he published The Dying Draughtsman in 2013, quickly followed by I Like Your Art Much, “The Francisco Problem” and O andar de cima (“The Top Floor,” both 2015), and The Care of Birds (2016). It’s no longer I that liveth, co-published earlier this year by Chili Com Carne and Mundo Fantasma, is but the latest title that adds to Lobo’s overall project (two more books, one short, the other longer, are being completed, both to be published probably this year as well). We may associate the titles with one another not only by the obvious fact that they belong to the same author but mostly because they seem to respond to the same authorial issues and concerns. Although most cannot be seen as autobiographic proper, the fact is they all present characters that, one way or the other, are either versions or avatars of Francisco Sousa Lobo himself.
Lobo has been studying, working, and living in the U.K. for the past few years, and is an accomplished visual artist, experimenting with a multitude of disciplines, from painting to woodcuts and drawing, from performance to spoken word, but mostly site-specific installations. A broad understanding of his work would reveal that comics-publishing is not seen as a separate activity, but a natural consequence or facet of his artistic research, both on a formal and a conceptual level. However, they do lead to a completely distinct social circulation. This is not the place to attempt a comparative study between these “two” activities. Suffice it to say that sometimes his comics address the artworld with which Lobo communicates and acts (the main character of The Dying Draughtsman is named Francisco Koppens, works in an architect’s studio – Lobo studied architecture – and draws conceptual comics in his spare time), and quite often are openly autobiographic, or auto-fictive at least, as is the case of his most recent offering. Like in the case of a few other artists, namely French master Edmond Baudoin or the Portuguese Marco Mendes, every single new project can be seen, no matter the tone, genre, or other details of a given project, as an integral part of generally the same gesture. Namely, that of self-subjectification and graphic life writing.
It’s no longer I that liveth focuses on the teen years of Francisco Ferreira (yet another Lobo avatar), in 1986, and it is possible to describe it as a Summer narrative. Elsewhere (a propos the Tamakis’ This One Summer), I argued that Summers are always already a very narrative structure, and Lobo follows this notion. The young teenager leaves for the Alentejo countryside, to his grandparent’s home, where he meets once again some of the local teenagers and engages in typical activities of leisure different from his city-bound routines. However, his age means that this is a transitory yet defining moment, where sexuality, religion, and life purposes in general are concerned. Point in fact, the events themselves are less important than the inner turmoil in which they plunge the young Francisco. The returning Francisco will not be the same as the one who arrived in Évora.
Mental health and religiosity (Catholicism) are major recurrent themes in Lobo’s output. There is a collection of small comics booklets being published in Portugal where artists are invited to choose “the film of their lives” and translate them into comics form. It should come as no surprise, given Lobo’s obsessions and explorations, that his choice fell upon Carl Dryer’s Ordet. The mixture between the problems of paranoia, Messiah complexes, the discrepancy of art-making and its communication with people “outside” the loop, the paradox of debilitating and empowering faith, the pains of growing and the ensuing responsibilities… these are some of the ingredients of Lobo’s comics autobiographies and auto-fictions, and to a certain extent, it’s as if they collapse into an “original story” with the present volume. The title is, as one can surmise and then confirm in the diegesis, a quote from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (2:20). Francisco appropriates this sentence after deciding on his relationship with God, his fellow teenagers, and even his own future prospects, more or less related to creative activities. He sheds his old skin, and he is transfigured into his own future self.
The character is what one may describe in English as a “loser,” a “pariah,” although social dynamics were pretty different in the Portuguese 1980s from the usual clichés of U.S. high school dramas, with the typified cliques and predictable storylines. Still, Francisco appears as an inept teen when dealing with people of the opposite sex (to which he feels attraction, although at the same time questioning his own sexuality), bullies (he succumbs easily to whatever the stronger kids tell him to do), and his elders. No matter how understanding and accommodating his parents and grandparents are, Francisco is dealing with profound crisis of his own that cannot be solved easily. In fact, the abyss of nihilism is whispering and calling him to the edge, and Francisco courts the idea of letting himself go.
Lobo uses more often than not very regular page compositions, with strict grids or simple panel divisions, and within the panels he explores many non-naturalistic approaches. His characters are constructed with minimalist, thick black loose lines. The backgrounds can appear with a few details, but they’re quite often reduced to landscapes and interiors straight out of a Donald Judd catalogue. Printed in Risograph in black and yellow, this book continues the artist’s usual work in two colors. It would be tempting to color-code each title, perhaps finding in this yellow, at one time, the bright, disseminated sunlight of the Summer in Alentejo, in Southern Portugal, a blinding inner light that comes from God and which confronts Francisco with the possibility of the end of his own faith in it, but it is also possible that these are somewhat abusive interpretations. In any case, yellow reinforces the reduced, flattened dimensionality of the visual field.
One other recurrent formal technique is the use of parallel hatching, nimbuses, and other symbolic techniques, not so much to give the reader a feeling of texture, depth or volume, but rather as a way to translate the inner mental processes of his characters. If in other books these lines could translate migraines, visual hallucinations, or typical paranoia symptoms, in It’s no longer I that liveth seems to underscore Francisco’s sense of self-dissolution.
However, the last paradox of the book (and Lobo does explore contradictions repeatedly with his work) is that this seemingly “destruction” of Francisco Ferreira does not end in a total entropy. And the reason is because we are holding the book in our hands. As in his whole continuous oeuvre, it’s not that Francisco Sousa Lobo will manage to salvage, as it were, the ruins of his own past and painful memories and experiences, but that through their transfiguration, by turning his books into cartographies of those ruins, they may be, in fact, redeemed once again into cohesive elements of his own graphic self.
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