Monday, December 18, 2006

The Placebo Man
by Tomer Hanuka

The cover of The Placebo Man is striking, enough so that I had been tempted to buy the book long before I knew anything about its contents. The hot pink logo jumps off the racks like a strident declaration of purpose, almost defying the wary consumer to ignore the volume which it advertises. The juxtaposition between the Barbie-pink logo and the ascetically drab cityscape and shoreline that compose the rest of the image is actually a fairly accurate symbolic representation of Hanuka's style: the banal and prosaic cut up with just enough spice to make it unfamiliar, the normal as seen from a strange angle or unassuming vantage.

The stories presented here were originally published in Bipolar over the course of six years between 2000 and 2005. The progression of time is a palpable force in Hanuka's work: not merely the chopped and spliced approach to multiple time frames on the comics page, but more importantly the actual growth and refinement of Hanuka's skill over the course of these six years. It would be something of a criminal understatement to say that Hanuka's work improves over the course of The Placebo Man. The Hanuka who begins with book, with ambitious but clumsy exercises such as "Time Strips" and "I Love You", is barely recognizable in the assured, masterly work that concludes the volume. A story like "Morocco" achieves a casual, confident rhythm that sways the reader into emotional complicity, swooping across the finish line of the final page with an animal grace.

Hanuka's work, while distinctly his own, fits closely into an established tradition of modern comics short stories, specifically those concerned with the non-linear progression of events. The way in which the passage of time can be manipulated with such ease is one of the medium's singular strengths. A cartoonist can switch between multiple, parallel or conflicting time frames with deceptive ease, utilizing both visual and verbal clues to facilitate the kind of formally ambitious narrative that would be difficult to (coherently) execute in either prose or film. It's an ambitious approach. Early in the volume, Hanuka's reach clearly exceeds his grasp, as the narrative connections and inferences in "Time Strips" are simply too disparate and chaotic to work in the space of ten short pages; the result is a jumble. You can see a slight progression in "Elephant Graveyard", which carries a stronger central idea (the life of Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller) -- it's the central idea that enables the reader to follow Hanuka's flights of narrative dissonance across multiple iterations.

I don't know if I would necessarily call "Squeeze" a failure, even if I admittedly had a hard time following Hanuka's train of thought on this one. I believe, after a few rereadings, that a sense of foggy dislocation was something of the point. However, it is still hard not to conclude that the story's stew of rich (some would say overbearing) symbolism and emotionally potent imagery didn't at some point get the better of Hanuka. All such qualms fade with "Telekinetic", a simpler story for what it actually portrays but measurably more potent for its sharper focus. There is the subliminal sensation of things coming together, of the artist's intentions successfully and electrically matching his ambitions for perhaps the first time. The story carries an idea, and the many disparate, dispersed narrative threads all carry portions of that idea which finally come together at the story's end. Earlier in the volume, it seemed as if Hanuka's ideas were being unnecessarily obfuscated by superfluous stylistic ballast, but the later stories present a far more disciplined -- and thereby successful -- storyteller.

"Aquaflesh" is well-told but ultimately trifling, a reconception of Aquaman as an existential love story. It's "Morocco" that lingers with the reader long after the last page is turned, as memorable for the powerfully subtle cartooning skill on display as for the story itself. It is also worth noting that "Morocco" also marks a significant departure from the rest of the book in terms of the broader issues with which is relates: whereas the earlier stories almost exclusively deal with intimate issues of identity, memory and love, "Morocco" steps outside to broach race and national identity. While still ostensibly concerned with matters of persistently intimate dimensions, the presence of ethnic and national distinction between characters and settings creates a far more telling and evocative context than the almost hermetically deracinated earlier stories. A pair of the earlier stories, "I Love You" and "Junior", even go so far as to give us completely exaggerated cartoon figures as protagonists -- a fair notion given the stories themselves, but unsuited for the increasingly complex and affecting content of Hanuka's later work.

The Placebo Man in general, but "Telekinetic" and especially "Morocco" announce Hanuka as not merely a striking draftsman (something which most people probably already realized from his design work) but a storyteller of surpassing skill. The ability to confront politics in its stubbornly human dimensions is one of the defining challenges of art; by framing politics in the context of our most intimate expressions, Hanuka has taken a step closer to something far more profound than what is readily on display here. If the upward trend in Hanuka's work that we see in this volume continues throughout his career, we may just now be seeing the advent of a singularly potent cartooning talent.

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