Friday, September 5, 2014

Review: KILL MY MOTHER: A Graphic Novel

KILL MY MOTHER: A Graphic Novel
W.W. NORTON & COMPANY/Liveright – @wwnorton and @LiverightPub

CARTOONIST:  Jules Feiffer
ISBN: 978-0-87140-314-8; hardcover (August 25, 2014)
160pp, Color/2-Color, $27.95 U.S., $32.95 CAN

Born in 1929, Jules Feiffer won a 1961 Academy Award for his animated short film, Munro.  In 1969 and 1970, his plays, Little Murders and The White House Murder Case, each won Obie and Outer Circle Critics Awards.  Feiffer won the Pulitzer Prize for political cartoons in 1986.

Jules Feiffer is American author, playwright, screenwriter, and comics creator.  He is also a syndicated cartoonist and may be best known for his long-running comic strip, Feiffer, which ran for 42 years in The Village Voice.

Now, the former teenage assistant to comics legend, Will Eisner, has produced the first graphic novel of his long and distinguished career, entitled Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel.  This Film-Noir inspired comic book pays loving homage to the pulp-inspired films and comic strips that Feiffer loved as a youth, according to press material included with this original hardcover graphic novel's release.  Kill My Mother centers on five formidable women who are fatefully linked to a has-been, alcoholic, and lecherous private detective.

Kill My Mother opens in Bay City in the year 1933.  The story introduces Elsie Hannigan and her estranged teenaged daughter, Annie, who hates her mother.  Elsie is a widower, following the murder of her husband, Sam, a policeman.  Elsie's life is hectic and complicated.  Her boss is Neil Hammond, a hard-drinking, has-been private detective who takes shady jobs.

Hammond's most recent case arrives when a mystery woman, who identifies herself as Ruby Taylor, walks into the office, and asks Hammond to find Patricia Hughes.  This woman is a missing high school drama teacher with whom Ms. Taylor once had a close relationship.  Hammond knows that Taylor is lying about much (if not all) of what she tells him, but he takes the case anyway.  And he ends up murdered.

Ten years later, in 1943, Elsie is living in Hollywood.  She is the Executive Vice President of the Department of Image Security and Maintenance at Pinnacle Studios.  Basically, Elsie does damage control for the studio's movie stars.

Meanwhile, her daughter is now Ann Hannigan, and she is the single-mother of a young son, Sammy Hannigan.  Ann is also the creator and writer of the popular radio show, “Shut up, Artie.”  Of course, the series is based on her ex-boyfriend, Artie, but there is a problem with the wildly popular series.  America is at war, and Annie's former teen punching bag in no longer known as “Artie.”  He is now Captain Arthur Fulsom of the United States Marines, and he is a decorated World War II hero who is still fighting in the Pacific theater and who does not like the show.

Both mother and daughter discover that their pasts and their current jobs are about to clash in unexpected ways.  People from their respective and shared pasts either reemerge with new identities or with their true identities revealed.  Also, Elsie may be finally able to uncover a murderer.  This is all headed for an explosive conclusion that begins on the island of Tarawa, where war rages.

To be honest, the first time I tried to read Kill My Mother, I stopped after a few pages.  I avoided the galley/review copy that the publisher (Liveright, an imprint of W.W. Norton & Company) sent me.  I finally forced myself to read Kill My Mother, although I did not think that it would amount to very much.

Dear readers, you humble and favorite comic book reviewer was so wrong.  In the fourth chapter of this comic book, the first femme fatale enters the story, and Kill My Mother explodes.  From that point on, I tore through the story.  I didn't want it to end.  I am attracted to this comic book because of its Film-Noir and detective fiction influences.  At the beginning the book, Feiffer dedicates Kill My Mother to detective and crime fiction legends, including Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.  He acknowledges Film-Noir and crime film masters, such as John Huston and Howard Hawks, among others.  One might even call Kill My Mother the first Turner Classic Movies (TCM) graphic novel.

I think the biggest influence on Kill My Mother is the late Will Eisner, for whom Feiffer once worked.  In the way the story is executed and the way that the narrative unfolds, Kill My Mother is like a Will Eisner graphic novel.  The characters:  their personalities, the way they act, and their motivations make me think of the kind of characters found in Will Eisner's melodramas like A Contract with God and A Life Force, among others.

Feiffer makes this work distinctly his own through his dazzling graphical storytelling.  His compositions give life to static images.  The cartooning of the human figure makes emotion and motion a tangible thing; motivation and conflict are genuine.  Reading the storytelling that Feiffer tells though drawings and word balloons is also an adventure in plot twists.  You will likely not see some of what is coming, but you will want to see it.

Kill My Mother cannot quite be called “beginner's luck,” as this is not Feiffer's first experience with the comics medium.  However, his first graphic novel makes me want more from him.  Readers looking for comic books worth reading will want Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel.


Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux

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