We have come a long way since the emergence of book-long & -bound comics. For a reader of my age (40ish), exposed to different international models, from the French (A Suivre) romans of the 1980s to early alternative American comics, post-punk Barcelona and Madrid new comics magazines and Garo generation manga, and then to an almost archaeological backwards look into historical examples of “mature material” that could be summoned to have a wider understanding of the history of comics, the contemporary variety of genres, approaches, styles and even formats and materialities comes as no surprise. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we have reached such a jaded attitude where nothing would surprise us. It just means that we may read new work without the immediate need to bolster it as the book of the year or some-such bombastic headlines. Contemporary global production of comics is, at this moment, so overwhelming, that it will take years until we are able to actually understand what will become canonical or influential, despite the increasingly lack of importance of such matters.
We are also witnessing a more intense moment of international translations, with particularly more exposure of European comics (and from other countries apart from French-speaking ones) to English-speaking audiences and the growth or reinvigorating of smaller, local markets, which includes translations of comics of all kinds. SelfMadeHero’s catalogue is making precisely that, by giving to wider audiences access to comics from “new” territories. That is the case of The Return of the Honey Buzzard, from Flemish-speaking young artist Aimée De Jongh.
This book follows the life of Simon, the 30-something owner of a bookshop which has been in the family for years. Business is not healthy and he must choose between cashing in by selling out to a chain or carrying on to the bitter end. Right at the beginning of the story, after Simon picks some books from a cottage in the woods that acts as a private stock, he witnesses a woman committing suicide on the railway tracks. He tries to convince the woman to step out but to no avail. As of course, this is a shock for Simon there and then, but more importantly, this will trigger forgotten traumatic memories from his childhood about a school chum, Ralf and his accidental death. The author makes sure that we understand that Simon’s memories were not completely gone – when he finds a book in the cottage he is immediately transported into the past, reliving it à la Proust – but it is the shocking act of the present that will pry free from the recesses of his mind yet another similar, traumatic memory.
To a certain extent, some of the episodes in this narrative follow point by point some of Trauma Theory tenets. Simon’s childhood memory has been partially erased and now those bits have resurfaced due to Simon’s new exposition to a new traumatic event. The new “triggers” the past, creating a knotted time. Bodily gestures reenact previous experiences. Repetition and variation are the guiding principles of the story.
Both traumas have to do with witnessing a death, even if the relationship of the people who die towards Simon are quite different. De Jongh explores explicitly and with minute precision these mirroring episodes through the character’s gestures and body positions, choices of page composition, and so on. There are many moments when whatever adult Simon is doing is mirrored by younger Simon, creating a transtemporal dialogue across both moments in his life. But this mirroring will also trigger yet another dimension of his contemporary experience that, without spoiling the surprise of the book too much, delves into other sources of Simon’s dissatisfaction with his life. Not only at the professional level, but also in relation to his love life, his family history, and some long-nurtured desires (such as birdwatching).
The clues for the fantastical twist at the end and its resolution are scattered throughout the narrative and revealed in a typical The Usual Suspects fashion, becoming in retrospect quite obvious. The author plays with the seemingly naturalistic approach to her story, although presenting enough clues that would allow one to see that such a deviation was possible. By reinforcing the defenses, imagined or otherwise, of both Simon-as-an-adult and Simon-as-a-child, comes yet another shock that brings the protagonist back to a position closer to a possible, final “healing.” Desires, in order to remain as such, must always remain unfulfilled, and if such fantasies are realized they dissipate almost immediately. That is what happens to Simon, but that is also what helps him back on track, in the end.
Given the theme of the book, it is not strange to see Simon packing and unpacking books, carrying them from one place to the next, so that we see both piles being erected and shelves being emptied out. Not to mention opening books and unlocking their contents into his reminiscences and experiences. It’s as if this transportation of books could be read metaphorically as the transport of memories and performances that spill into the fantasy that Simon summons into his life. Books are the anchoring devices for Simon, and in more than one way.
Aimée De Jongh’s figurative style is, at one time, simple and solid. On the one hand, there is a manga-esque quality to it that associates her style to that of many younger artists across the world (something I’ve seen discussed as “Tumblr style”), with scribbled, soft pencil lines for the rubbery, cutesy bodies and faces. The surrounding spaces follow the same quality, and whereas there are detailed renditions of the honey buzzards of the title, some vegetation and the wood patterns of the cottage boards, most of the settings and objects are created with just a handful of loose but judicious lines. On the other hand, though, the balance between heavily textured panels and white backgrounds, a strong use of blacks (for Simon’s beard and jacket, the roads and shadows and silhouettes here and there), also ground the characters and their actions. Perhaps it is in the most simple page structuring choices (with three to four panels, in what Renaud Chavanne would call “semi-regular compositions”, cf. Composition de la bande dessinée) that the young author shows her more interesting skills, where she flaunts a bright use of silent panels to convey emotion-bursting scenes, without ever falling into overtly melodramatic poses.
In the contemporary book-length comics market, “trauma narratives” are almost a set genre, a commodity even, quite saleable and that will guarantee critical exposure. The Return of the Honey Buzzard reinforces such a notion by presenting a fiction about witnessing traumatic events within a more or less simple and happily-solved story. But if we are to accept the expansion of the possibilities of comics as a form of expression or all kinds of stories and approaches, then we must accept for whimsical encounters between realism and the fantastical, the shocking and the trivial, the grave and the smooth. And De Jongh’s book is that very balancing act. And a brilliant one, at that.
Read‘s The Return of the Honey Buzzard or other related works: