Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Lungful of Melancholy: Justin Madson's Breathers

Breathers by Justin Madson
Just Mad Books, 2011
Breathers is a 2011 graphic novel written, illustrated and published by Justin Madson, collecting his mini-comic serialized between 2007 and 2011. Two things immediately jump out: Madson's illustration style and the size of the graphic novel. Both a strength and a weakness, Madson's art style, as far as human characters go, is fairly unique: in stark black-and-white art, the characters have gangly appendages, long faces above the mouth, and Harold Gray-Orphan Annie Eyes. It's not as extreme as another recent graphic novel inhabiting the language of sadness, Chris Wright's Black Lung, which almost borders abstraction, but it does make facial identification difficult in places. His draftsmanship is competent enough that the novel holds together visually, though, and despite the length - 425 pages - it is a fairly breezy read.

Breezy in terms of time, though certainly not in tone. Despite it's high concept and aims, the most striking feature upon reading it is the pervasive melancholy that is infused into every character, every interaction, every fiber of the book itself. Forty years ago, a virus is loosed upon the Earth in the very air we breathe, so all humans are required to wear special "breathers," apparatus that allows people to go outside. There is a fear of the air which is quite deadly, though some think the virus may be dissipating and the whole breather thing is a giant conspiracy theory. The sadness felt by the characters isn't because of the virus, though. They are all just really, really sad.

Ostensibly this is a character piece about a bunch of unrelated people in a smallish town and the tangential ways some of their lives interact. The novel is divided into chapters with each chapter featuring a shorter sequence focusing on one character or group of characters. Some of the story arcs intersect and some don't. It's hard to juggle characters in a shared setting like this in an interesting enough way without getting gimmicky, and the characters need to be compelling enough on their own. Unfortunately they aren't. There are a few interesting things done with the concept, but there is largely nothing done in Breathers that can't be done without the sci-fi hook. That wouldn't be a bad thing if the characters' various arcs were interesting, except, again, that they really aren't. There are decidedly supernatural elements sprinkled throughout that just don't quite fit, and there is some attempt made at overexplaining things as far as the virus is concerned.

Overall it doesn't quite work, but even through it's narrative messiness, Madson's art style is interesting enough to stick with it. You can do worse for thirty bucks, and if you don't want to get the hard copy you can download it for five dollars direct from the author. If read in small chunks, the lack of cohesion and silliness - and the ceaseless gloominess, which might just be the real virus of the story - will be a lot more bearable.

Breathers is available for purchase or download on the author's website here, as well as from finer comic shops just like JHU Comic Books in New York City.

No comments:

Post a Comment