Monday, January 19, 2015

How the World Was: A California Childhood by Emmanuel Guibert

"So you want me to tell you a little bit about my childhood in Southern California?"

Yes! Tell me, Alan Cope. And show me, Emmanuel Guibert. In spite of their age difference, French cartoonist Guibert (born 1964) and American expatriate Cope (1925-1999) were friends. Recorded conversations have given Guibert some wonderful material to work with. An earlier example is the graphic novel memoir Alan's War, which I reviewed in 2009.

How the World Was transported me to the era of the Great Depression, in the decade leading up to 1937. Cope is an excellent storyteller, with clear memories of what it was like to be a child, and specific details of southern California before freeways and pollution. Guibert's artwork, a mix of manipulated old photos and nuanced ink brush figures, make that world even more vivid.

The urban landscape is so different:

  "At that time, trains still ran on city roads. The tracks were right there on top of the pavement, like trolley tracks. The train slowly pulling into the station made for an impressive sight. Automobile traffic halted to let the huge locomotive pass, its puffing punctuated by the clang! clang! clang! of its bell.
    In those days, aerodynamics wasn't yet a factor in the design of land vehicles. Those locomotives were monuments--monsters.
    To travel by train was to travel by black dragon."

Cope witnessed the introduction of consumer products that we now take for granted:

   "We started seeing ads in magazines showing a well-dressed, healthy-looking little girl with golden curls. I could read a bit. The ad said: 'Oh, she's so pretty! She's so healthy! She uses Kleenex!' I had no idea what a Kleenex might be.
    I found out one day that a little girl who lived up the street had a box of Kleenex. That's how I met her. She was pretty nice, and sometimes we'd play together.
    I wonder what happened to her. No idea."
Detail from Guibert's How the World Was, taken from larger spread below.
Cope remembers a bachelor who used to rent a room in their house. "He had a machine that sharpened safety-razor blades. Those razors, which were fitted with small rectangular blades, were still a novelty and the blades were fairly expensive, so our renter sharpened them. Sometimes he'd let me turn the handle of the machine." (See detail above, from larger page-spread below.)

I wonder how well this little machine worked. As it happened, before I came to this panel I had just listened to a passage in a different book explaining the difficulty, at the molecular level, entailed in sharpening razer blades. It was in the audiobook Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape our Man-made World by Mark Miodownik.

Guibert's layout is polished and precise. There's a lot of text, all nicely proportioned on the pages. His use of negative space is evocative. In the page spread above, on the bottom left panel, Cope's father is shown isolated in an enlarged pull-out from the soda fountain scene directly above. The white space around him gives the impression that he is somewhat of a mystery, as a father is to his young son. On the opposite page, where children run into empty space, the text ends with the line: "California cities were full of vacant lots in those days."

If you are a fan of graphic novel memoirs, do not miss this. I read the English edition translated by Kathryn Pulver and published by First Second.

Readalikes: Alan's War (Guibert); Fun Home (Bechdel); Dotter of Her Father's Eyes (Talbot & Talbot); You'll Never Know (Tyler); Over Easy (Pond); Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me (Pekar & Waldman); and Marzi (Sowa).

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