FOR a decade, Rosalind B. Penfold (a pseudonym) drew pictures. A heart ripping apart, a naked man juggling women, her own self spun yo-yo-like from a giant hand. Page by page, she created a visual diary of her abusive relationship and then hid each one away in a cardboard box as quickly as she made them.
Years later, she revisited these black-and-white images to create the graphic narrative of Dragonslippers: This Is What an Abusive Relationship Looks Like. Recently released in Canada, the book is scheduled for publication in another nine countries so far.
Dragonslippers follows the arc of the character Rosalind's relationship with the abusive Brian, and her eventual escape. Brian's malevolence and Rosalind's confusion are conveyed frame-by-frame through image, caption, and dialogue.
The double-barrelled title sums up the book's dual, at times duelling, tones: the poetic and the explanatory. Penfold's drawings are homey and energetic. They have moments of humour (a coffeepot gets labelled "Trouble.") Intermittently, they shock.
Penfold anticipates the reader's most pressing question: "Why did you stay?" Her protagonist moves through a series of answers. We watch Rosalind make meaning of Brian's petty and grandiose manipulations, of her immersions in guilt and shame, sorrow and rage. Lighthearted pictures, and phrases in cheerful cartoon format, are mixed with crushingly raw statements and stark full-page images, such as Brian's son explaining the missing wine glasses. (They've disappeared because they always break when his father tries to fit them in the car's cup holder.)
Brian perpetually appears larger than life, in motion, expanding beyond the frames.
Tackling the painful, horrifying, or gruesome in graphic-narrative form is not newâe"Art Spiegelman drew a powerful Holocaust story with a cast of cats and mice in Maus (1986) and Maus II (1992). (Maus is the only graphic novel to have won a Pulitzer Prize, and both books have been recently re-released by Pantheon as The Complete Maus.) The juxtaposition of pleasing-looking drawings representing hard-to-fathom truths, however, still jars.
The smorgasbord genre of "the graphic novel" describes a bursting category bound only by the presence of pictures in or as its stories. Taking Spiegelman's lead, creators have used the form to tell powerful, often deeply serious, narratives. Joe Sacco has collapsed our expectations of how to understand foreign affairs in Safe Area Gorazde (1996), The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo (2003), and War's End (2005). Celebrated Canadian cartoonist Seth's Bannock, Beans, & Black Tea (2004, with John Gallant) and Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner's Our Cancer Year (1994) are also significant stories, highly personal in tone, which Penfold's work evokes.
But Dragonslippers also follows from a newer and equally transformative graphic tradition of the personal made political in women's stories about their lives. Marjane Satrapi's explorations of the Iranian women, in Persepolis I and II (2004), and most recently Embroideries (2005), have garnered well-deserved attention. Canadian artist Shary Boyle's Witness My Shame (2004) and Sonja Ahlers' Fatal Distraction (2004) are also well worth exploring for their hit-you-in-the-gut honesty packaged in the form of terribly beautiful pictures.
"The use of a drawing, rather than a photograph, can create the distance necessary to handle a sophisticated topic without being cynical," Satrapi explains. And the best graphic novels do offer an antidote to the cynicisms of journalism and of our culture's sometimes exhausting irony. They evoke picture books, a safe yet wildly creative place. Luckily for both readers and artists, as a genre graphic novels are enjoying an exhilarating expansion.
The sophisticated themes of many graphic novels also derive from a freedom that comes from their outsider heritage: the lineage of comics, not "high art"; of superheroes and subversion. "Comics aren't supposed to be 'serious,' so we can say anything," Satrapi says. Spiegelman's boardbook In the Shadow of No Towers (2004) poked at the Bush administration after 9/11 far more directly than most other print media felt free to.
Indeed, Dragonslippers clearly intends to take advantage of the graphic novel's rising popularity to broadcast its message as widely as possible.
"I want to show you something," the book begins, as Rosalind asks us to wonder, experience, relate, and ultimately take action by visiting the book's companion site. Dragonslippers is set apart from its genre by its explicit intentions to help, to heal, and to teach readers the signs of domestic abuse, something that can work against it as a piece of literature.
Despite its strengths, Dragonslippers feels at times like an overly curated exhibit. The subtitle makes clear what the book is about; the introduction makes clear how the story ends. The reader is accompanied throughout by the constant guidance of Rosalind's narration. Penfold does add suspense with visual and conceptual themes: her analogy of the dragonslippers, the pigeon experiment, film strips. (I won't spoil that suspense by explaining them.)
But notwithstanding the validity of Penfold's words, they are far less ambitious than her graphics. Crucial details of her images add depth. Repeated features create visual themesâe"Rosalind's self doubt, Brianâe(TM)s constant phone calls, and othersâe"but it can be too easy to slide over the images to focus on the text instead. Broader margins or more white space generally could have offset the illustrations to better effect and reminded the reader to take in the page as a whole, giving Penfold's illustrations the attention they deserve. As it is, the captions and dialogue dominate, often echoing each other and over-explaining their image.
The text also includes frequent clichÃ©s: one of Brian's children "clung to [his sister] for dear life," another "always had her nose stuck in a book!" Perhaps this chattiness guides the reader almost inadvertently into the unpalatable topic. More likely, I fear, it lets the reader gloss over, dispelling the nausea an engaged response would produce.
Dragonslippers may not be the graphic novel at its best, but it is an important story, accessibly told, and a valuable resource. Penfold raises questions, presents explanations, and gives hope.
We learn about ourselvesâe"as individuals and as a cultureâe"through the stories of others, and Penfold offers her intensely personal story as a touchstone. In the tradition of women telling their private truths as a transformative political act, Dragonslippers is an innovative way to force a closer look at a shrouded, pernicious, and persistent issue too many are reluctant to open their eyes and see. âe"Jane Henderson