Review of RPCV Jesse Lonergan's Joe and Azat
Born in Manhattan, reviewer Ian Kreisberg is older than MTV but younger than Etch-A-Sketch, making him contemporary with Lite-Brite. Like his contemporary, Ian exists to entertain others; a skill he has been honing for over 2 decades. Ian is a calligrapher, graphic designer, comedian, and amateur maker of comics. He lectures on the subject of comics as a medium at colleges and art galleries. While he has never been in the Peace Corps, his best friends have! And to prove that he could be a PCV, he spends time with friends, plays punk ukulele, reads comics, and tries desperately to keep track of his ideas. To get him ready to serve, I asked if he would review Jesse Lonergan’s (Turkmenistan 2005-07) graphic novel.
Joe and Azat
by Jesse Lonergan (Turkmenistan 2005–07)
Reviewed by Ian Kreisberg
Before I praise Jesse Lonergan for the use of his chosen medium, I feel compelled to discuss some of the actual content in Joe and Azat.
Joe and Azat is fiction in a rare and beautiful way in that it is what Alan Moore described as “a true fiction” and while the actual events of the narrative may never have transpired, they both may have done so and will be familiar to many at their core.
During the course of my own reading, I found myself awash in memories of my own experience in Germany with my foreign exchange student, Benny, and fun little cultural differences that I was exposed to in my time with him and with his family in Hamburg. I still write him letters. He usually replies to them on Facebook.
And while Joe is in Turkmenistan with Azat and his family, there is very little about the larger cultural or political picture revealed during the story because it is, frankly, not germane to the ongoing tale of friendship and culture that the story is about, if it can be said to be about anything.
I am hesitant to go on in terms of the content of the story lest I spoil it, so, to sum up, Joe and Azat is fun to read, deeply genuine, and has appeal to anyone who has ever made friends in other regions as near as New York or Georgia and as far as Kazakhstan.
This will all be readily apparent to anyone reading the book. Let’s discuss some more subtle things and scratch the surface of the medium of comics.
Every one of the storytelling media has something special that they do which no other medium can really approximate without a crutch of some sort. The written word is uniquely suited to conveying the internal; thoughts, feelings, internal conflict. Not so much with action. If you’ve ever read an action packed novel, the one thing you can be certain of is that it’s short.
Conversely, film conveys action and motion in ways that cannot be approached and can barely be approximated but falls short when dealing with internal conflicts where print excels.
Theater brings a level of intimacy and reality that cannot be ignored because, whatever may be going on, the fact that there are real people in the same room as you moving around and being all the things that real people are is inescapable.
Because comics deal with words and pictures in sequence, they engage both the left and right hemispheres of your brain while also being interactive as well as active. Print is also active, meaning that you must actively read and turn pages. Film can happen to you without your participation. Through their interactivity and, depending on how they are illustrated, comics also provide a unique vehicle for identification with the characters portrayed in them.
Jesse Lonergan uses comics very, very effectively.
Things you may not notice when reading Joe and Azat:
The lines are clean and smooth. This makes your subconscious reading experience fun and inviting.
You would be hard pressed not to notice that it is black and white, but you may not realize that by eliminating color, it is easier for you as a reader to identify with the characters. The less a character is visually defined, the more iconic a character is, the easier it becomes for you to slip into that character’s role in your own imagination. “Hey, that could be me” is a not uncommon subconscious thought.
The layout is consistent without being boring and adventurous without being jarring. When all the panes or panels of a page are the same over and over again, or lined up against the same grid the entire time, reading can become monotonous or, if not monotonous, very dense. It’s not bad thing to stick to a grid, Watchmen and From Hell are both executed on a 9 panel grid and they are each over 300 pages, but neither are they light fun reading. Alternatively, layouts which lack any consistency quickly become disjointed and, while you may not notice it consciously, it can really pull you out of a story. Lonergan’s layout uses enough variety and open space that we don’t feel weighed down by information and is consistent enough that it doesn’t distract from the story he’s telling.
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