Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Koyama: Nathan Jurevicius' Birthmark

Nathan Jurevicius' book Birthmark is part fairy tale and part hero's journey, as it follows a nameless and bulbous creature from abject poverty to world-shaking influence. Told in first-person captions, what's memorable about this book is Jurevicius' dense, grotesque and often scribbly use of color. The hues and scribbles give one the sense that the entire world shown here is badly bruised and battered. The story begins in the city, where the hero is separated from his mother after his father (a painter) had displeased the Grand Inquisitor (the defacto ruler of the city). The juxtaposition of pink, purple and dark green creates that "bruise" effect, as the hero lives the life of a scavenger and later a menial factory worker.

One of the central themes of the book is that compassion and caring, even in a brutal and uncaring world, can be enormous strengths. The hero takes pity on a grub that would otherwise have been farmed for food or entertainment, and she becomes his best friend. They leave the city together and simply go about trying to do the right thing and be helpful, which leads to a series of adventures that eventually become horrible. Death is everywhere, and it comes for Edith the grub, transforming the hero into someone who turns his grief and love into a weapon of vengeance. At the same time, he knows that he has to take care of Edith's children, to whom she gave birth right as she died. Again, protecting and nurturing life in this book ultimately leads to a special and powerful destiny. By the end of the book, the hero waltzes back into the city and rescues his mother, and threatens changes. Those changes are only hinted at as the book ends (I suspect there will be another volume), but what matters is the way in which the hero became hardened enough to kill his enemies but retained enough compassion to think of his mother and the inhabitants of the city first.

Jurevicius worked big on every page. Most every page had one or two panels at most, in an effort to emphasize the massiveness of the struggle, the sheer size of the city, the ferocity of the threats encountered, etc. As such, each page is worth of studying on an individual basis in terms of the color balance and composition. It's not what I would call a beautiful book, but its aesthetic is powerful and unapologetic in the way it portrays the grotesque quality of its characters and backgrounds. When Jurevicicius switches from the base colors to bright blue or canary yellow, it opens up the book's world to the reader as well as its hero. The matter-of-factness of the hero is another interesting quality of the book, as he reacts in a level-headed manner to the horrible things that happen as well as the major changes that occur in his life. Gaining new knowledge and purpose does not fundamentally change him as an individual; instead, it only reinforces his strongly-held values. I'll be curious to see if there's another book that will come out of this series, because it has room for greater complexity with regard to the overall narrative.

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