Kill My Mother

feifferThe Short Version: In the spirit of classic noir, Jules Feiffer delivers a story about dames, detectives, drinking, and death.  Following several strong-minded women whose lives begin to intersect in 1933, Kill My Mother is a rainy mystery like they don’t make anymore.

The Review: I know Jules Feiffer, of course, from his illustrations for The Phantom Tollbooth – but had no idea that the man is also a renowned political cartoonist, illustrator, and artist.  So a graphic novel, meant to evoke his youthful inspirations and those he first worked with, sounded like a fascinating attempt to experience more of an artist whose impact on pretty much every child-reader is immense, but who then fades from view.

As a result, this book operates on two levels: visually and narratively.  Let us begin with visually: this book is glorious.  Relying on a palate of grays, blacks, and whites, Feiffer evokes rainy streets on black and white filmstock – the noir atmosphere is, blam, just there.  The characters have bodies that seem to zig and zag but those hyperactive movements bring them to life, in a way.  Look at Neil’s face, look at Elsie’s.  They make stylized expressions that feel like shorthand into those noir tropes; Feiffer uses his pen to evoke the story in ways words never could.  And you could probably remove all of the text from the novel and still have a relatively coherent story – the pictures are that strong.  A scene depicting a boxing match stands out for me: it’s a masterful expression of movement and storytelling via still images.

The actual story itself though is where the book falls a little flat.  It begins ordinarily enough: a boozehound detective, a statuesque dame with a strange case, the detective’s secretary with a tough homelife who just wants to solve the case that’s been haunting her.  And we go through the motions, excellent motions though they are, of setting up this story.  There are rainy nights, lots of booze, the aforementioned boxing match… it all feels like nothing special, but a delightfully enjoyable nothing special.  And then we leap forward ten years and things go a bit wibbly.  Hollywood becomes a much larger part of the picture and characters undergo some strange and unexpected changes that feel abrupt and a little jarring.  The final act takes place mostly in the jungles of the Pacific during World War II and it feels like it’s meant to be part of a different story.  For one thing, the palate doesn’t work as well for semi-tropical surroundings – and by palate, I mean both the color and the noir trappings.  As various machinations are put into play, I found myself scratching my head a little bit – and when it’s all but over, we’re treated to some (admittedly stylistically appropriate) wrap-up scenes that only drive home how crazy some of the plot was.  It leaves one feeling a little empty, as though the meal disappeared on its way down.

Rating: 3 out of 5.  The first half of the novel is pretty terrific and the artwork, throughout the whole, is exceptional.  But I was confused several times by who was involved with whom and why – and, after glancing back through, it felt like there were narrative leaps that were taken somewhat unnecessarily.  It all added up to me not particularly caring about the characters or their circumstances and just wanting to look at the pictures.  Perhaps a wordless version of the story might’ve been more engaging after all – but then maybe not.  Still, it’s marvelous to reconnect with an artist who has, after all this time, retained such an indelible stamp on my mind.

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