Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Lone Racer
by Nicolas Mahler

I didn't know anything about Lone Racer, or Nicolas Mahler, before I opened up the book to read. Without any preconceived notions whatsoever, the first thing that really struck me about the book was the mood. At the risk of seeming flip, I was able to tell within just a few pages that this was not an American production; the execution and atmosphere was definitely European. Sure enough on the indicia page you find a credit that indicates the book was translated by Mark Nevins. Maybe I'd know more about Nicholas Mahler if I paid more assiduous attention to Bart Beaty's columns over at The Comics Reporter - in any event, I didn't and I don't, because reading about all the great comics being done in languages I don't read and which will probably never be translated is simply too depressing - not to mention aimless - a prospect.

But I can still be thankful that Lone Racer made it across the Atlantic. It's a small book, 92 pages of brisk story, but it carries itself with such a cheerfully mordant aplomb that it manages to communicate quite a bit with very little, as well as communicating some fairly complex emotions under cover of dry wit. I've got an image in my mind - probably unfair, no doubt grossly distorted - of what Lone Racer would have been if it had been tackled by a domestic creator. There's an ambiguity of tone here that just doesn't seem evident in the work of very many young American cartoonists. The subjects on display - aging, disappointment, deferred ambition - are not usually the province of the young, or, at least, not usually. So many of the books that cross my desk these days are by young or young-ish cartoonists whose essential ambition in terms of both their talent and their medium precludes the kind of warn-out, undemonstrative melancholy on display here. It feels lived-in.

The pictures themselves are about as understated as possible, expressionistic glyphs intended to relay withdrawn emotions on a minor-key scale. Although it's certainly only a vague impression (not intended to convey any comparative worth), Mahler's work brings to mind Matisse, in particular the way Matisse used simplified geometries and refined composition to counter Picasso's more explosive impulses.

The story itself isn't really much - an aging race car driver (no NASCAR, thanks, this is all about the old-school European Formula One) faces getting older and going nowhere with his life. His wife is hospitalized with some sort of chronic debilitating condition. He spends most of his time at the bar with a handful of similarly dissipated friends. He doesn't seem to be depressed - nothing nearly so dramatic. The fact is that he's lost his way, wandered into a state which a clinical therapist might more accurately describe as anhedonia. It's a story about small steps - not reigniting any kind of grand passion, but merely learning how to keep going forward, relishing the sensation of being alive and the small victories that naturally occur.

As much as the critic in me tries to qualify the statement, it's hard to get around the fact that I enjoyed this book a great deal. It's refreshing to encounter a small book that doesn't carry any kind of implicit ambitions above and beyond its limited scope - it's hard to fault Lone Racer in any way because it fulfils its mandate with such conscientious skill that you find, for once, nothing less than a sense of complete satisfaction upon reaching the end. It only takes about fifteen minutes to read - twenty if you linger - but it should stay with you for a good while after that.

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