Dotter of Her Father's Eyes
Mary M. Talbot
Dark Horse, 2012
96 pp., $14.99
Fathers and Daughters
Most of my fellow teachers of literature know that students often think of almost any book-length narrative work as a "novel." A paper might begin, "Augustine writes in his novel The Confessions …" or "Homer's Iliad is a novel that …." This is not a major intellectual failing, of course, but it should remind us of the extent to which the novel has become so dominant a genre that common readers think of it simply as narrative, or lengthy narrative, itself. It should also be a reminder to teachers that time devoted to explaining the history and uses of literary genre is time well spent.
This particular inexactitude happens in non-academic settings too, and indeed a new version of it has recently arisen. Stephen Weiner's Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel refers to Art Spiegelmann's Maus—an account of the author's father's experience in Auschwitz—as a graphic novel. Similarly, we might consider Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, a recent book by Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot. On Amazon.com you may find it in the "Graphic Novel" category; its Wikipedia page, at least as I write, begins "Dotter of Her Father's Eyes is a 2012 graphic novel"—but then goes on to add, in the next sentence, "It is part memoir, and part biography of Lucia Joyce, daughter of modernist writer James Joyce." That the second sentence is not seen to contradict the first one reminds us once more how the word "novel" is commonly used; but it also reveals the limitations of our descriptive and critical vocabulary for this new form. The genres of graphic narrative proliferate beyond our ability to account for them.
Major comic artists like Will Eisner—in his Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative (1985)—and Scott McCloud—in his Understanding Comics (1993) and Making Comics (2006)—have done yeoman work in explaining, for a wide readership but especially for would-be artists, the visual languages of graphic storytelling. Those are superb and, for anyone seriously interested in the subject, indispensable books. There is also a burgeoning academic and critical literature on graphic storytelling, as exemplified in The Comics Studies Reader (2009), edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. But we still struggle, I think, to know how best to write about graphic narrative—especially in that odd genre called the "book review."
A reviewer will want to say something about the shape of the story: its plot and structure, the way it organizes time and event. The adequacy and appropriateness of the language should be considered, as should those of the artwork. By "appropriateness" I mean, to use an old word, decorum, fitness: Do the language and the images fit the shape of the story? If they do not, does that indecorum seem meant? Is the resulting tension productive, or not? And then the reviewer should ask how the language and artwork interact. (These questions will vary in inflection and emphasis depending on whether the narrative is the work of a single artist—as in the case of William Blake's illuminated poems, or the recent work of Alison Bechdel or Chris Ware—or the product of collaboration, as is the norm in the world of "comics" narrowly defined.)
The graphic narrative is, then, a device with many moving parts. Randall Jarrell once defined the novel as "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it"—not so far from the implicit definition of my students—and a graphic narrative might be even more naturally inclined to error. And everything I have said so far applies to fictional narratives: if the tale graphically told is historical or biographical, as is increasingly common these days, then one must also ask whether it is faithful to what we know, from elsewhere, of the story it tells. Yet another way for a book to have something wrong with it.
All of this throat-clearing brings us back to Dotter of Her Father's Eyes. It is a double story, whose protagonists are Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, and Mary M. Talbot herself, in her early years as Mary Atherton, daughter of James S. Atherton, whose The Books at the Wake: A Study of Literary Allusions in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1959) was one of the first major studies of that most daunting of masterpieces. (Dotter of Her Father's Eyes takes its title from a phrase in the Wake.)
The first thing that must be said about Dotter is that it's one of the most visually rich and sophisticated graphic narratives I have ever seen. Bryan Talbot renders the scenes from Mary Atherton's childhood in sepia tones, though patches of bright red or green are used occasionally to heighten certain moments; the life of the Joyce family is rendered in muted and mostly dark blues; and Mary's emergence into adulthood from the oppressive authority of her father is signaled by the use of fully-colored panels. Typewriter-style typefaces appear in conjunction with, often in contrast to, the familiar style of comic lettering; and scattered through the book are photographs, chiefly of documents pertaining to James Atherton. A particularly interesting example comes on the last page of the narrative: a weathered card on which is typed the chorus of the old ballad "Finnegan's Wake" lies atop Atherton's University of Liverpool registration form, which in turn covers much of the last page of Finnegans Wake, which begins: "sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father." Layers upon layers, both literally and metaphorically.