Created by: Ray Fawkes
Published by: Oni Press
ISBN: 1934964662 (Amazon)
As a rule, I adore experimentation. Even when the ultimate product of one’s creative exercise is by most standards a failure, the mere fact of the creator’s attempt to forge a virgin path instills their resultant work with something magical. So much of what we encounter in our common experience of the literary world is—despite well-fashioned pretenses otherwise—regurgitated formula. This isn’t so much a bad thing as it is merely a description of The Way Things Are. There’s a reason Robert McKee’s Story is a popular introduction to writing stories that people will want to read: we, as a people, prefer for our books and films to play out in ways that are familiar, worn, and true.
Whether in narrative or in style or in form, straying from best practice (i.e. the way everyone else does it) is a facile means to lose an audience. It takes a reader a special kind of patience or motivation to get past textual idiosyncrasies. When one first encounters Cormac McCarthy’s taste for absconding with punctuation, there will be an almost instant evaluation: Is the praise this author has so far garnered enough to override my desire to read a book that seems to be making things more difficult for me for no evident reason? Many American readers, when confronted with the right-to-left reading format and some of the stylistic differences encountered in much of the manga imports11I do realize that manga shouldn’t actually be considered experimentation. I only mention it and its dismissal by many American comics enthusiasts to bolster the argument that when confronted with product that lies outside the realm of expectation, the reaction is often negative. over the last decade, have wholly dismissed entrants into the medium from Asian sources—the difference between what they expect from comics versus what they see on the surface in manga was too great and, in the end, alienated them. In gaming, the recent Dear Esther has polarized gamers over how little agency the game (some would prefer game to be in scare-quotes) offers the player—to the point that it’s common to hear people describe Dear Esther as a walking simulator. In common amongst these examples is the distance between expectation and reality.
When someone picks up a post-apocalyptic novel like The Road, they’re generally ready for some dour survivalist melancholy but they’re likely not expecting that dialogue won’t be set off with quotation marks. When an American comics reader picks up something like Naruto or Death Note or (egads) Twin Spica for the first time, they’re going to be surprised and confused and unfamiliar with stylistic tics, visual cues, and the decompression of narrative. When a Call of Duty player picks up Dear Esther, they’re likely to wonder why a WASD game never really requires A, S, or D. These innovations or differences can be charming and wonderful and open new worlds to the willing. But at the same time, their alien nature may present an insurmountable obstacle for the majority of their potential audience. The fact is: it’s much safer to craft a product that fits within the mold of expectation and relegate innovation and invention to the details. A reader who gets tricked into reading the same thing once more but is led to believe that the thing encountered is fresh and new—that reader will be a fan for life. It’s not the kind of thing we discourage and we certainly can’t blame either the authors or readers because it’s not as if there’s anything morally or aesthetically wrong with regurgitation. Entire species owe their lives to the concept.
Still, despite the difficulty that experimentation poses for the average reader (and I include myself in this number), I think it’s important that we praise the innovative spirit. When Murakami writes a good chunk of After Dark in the plural first person and present tense, I think we may owe it to him to see if it works—and if not, see if we can take any lessons from his failure (if he indeed failed). When Bolaño writes an obnoxious litany reporting the rape and murder of woman after woman over the space of hundreds of pages of 2666, even if we don’t appreciate his work and maybe think his point wasn’t worth quite so many words, we have to respect the effort.
And that’s why, even though I don’t count One Soul as a particularly successful experiment, I do value both what author Ray Fawkes set out to accomplish and what he in actuality accomplished.
As a concept, One Soul is entirely fascinating. The book presents an eighteen-panel grid, with each grid spread over two pages. Each panel represents one of eighteen lives and follows each from birth to death. So a reader can just read panel 5 on every pair of pages to take in the whole life of a Chinese woman born into the medieval silk trade or follow panel 13 through to see the life of an American slave unfold. This isn’t the recommended method of taking in the book, but it’s possible (and may make keeping track of stories a bit easier).
If that formal experimentation weren’t high-concept enough, Fawkes adds a bit of narrative invention as well. One Soul is literally about a single human spirit, passing from one life into the next in some form of reincarnation.22I’m unaware of whether Fawkes is employing any particular religion’s version of reincarnation or simply positing a layman’s understanding of the popular notion of rebirth. Fawkes begins his book with the birth of all eighteen of his protagonists in each of their individual eras and contexts. As the book progresses, he keeps all his characters at roughly the same age so that when we’re seeing the freshly post-adolescent shepherd struggle with homosexual leanings, we’re also seeing the freshly post-adolescent Parisian dancer hundreds of years later. Because the lifespan of individuals differs due time and circumstance, some lives end while others continue on. Fawkes blacks out the panels of the dead for the remainder of the work, though he will often continue those characters’ voices through some sort of post-mortem rumination. This is a fantastic idea and really sells the potential reader on the idea that eighteen disparate life experiences really could have a profound and wonderful story to tell. And they may—though I’m not sure they quite do in this particular book.
While Fawkes’ concept is invigourating, a couple things stand in the way of him selling it as well as it does on paper. With a single panel out of every two pages being devoted to each person, the book at most offers only seventy-five panels in which to come to care about an individual’s life and story. In some cases, the number of panels is far less than seventy-five—the shortest life is snuffed in less than twenty-five panels. It’s not enough. And I can’t tell whether the blame lies in Fawkes as a writer or in the slim page count, though Fawkes would have to be a phenomenal author to make it work in so little space. Throughout the book, I was never drawn into the characters or their circumstance. I was never tempted to empathize. While reading, I found myself only excited (and I use excited very loosely here) to discover which protagonist would be extinguished next and what would be the manner of their demise. Not exactly the ideal manner to approach a serious work about the human soul.
Beyond the distance I felt from each protagonist, Fawkes eschews (I think wisely) character dialogue and instead employs a kind of reminiscence-narration, presumably from the One Soul. It’s fragmented and nearly free-verse poetic (or maybe not even “nearly”) and served, unfortunately, to distance me further still from the characters and their plights. It often reads as overly dramatic and self-involved. The voice of the soul wasn’t (to me) particularly interesting.
Further, the presence of the narration combined with the book giving away in its title the reincarnative aspect kind of saboutages some of the more violent wrestlings with forgoing theism for atheism. Several of the characters shake their fist at the heavens and seek solace in raw materialism, but any power to be read into their lives’ decisions is muted in that the narrator flatly dismisses materialism by its overt celebration of the eternality of the soul. Maybe this was intentional, but it didn’t feel like it was.
One Soul does have things to recommend it, of course. The concept, as mentioned, is brilliant. There are textual moments that overlap particular lives perfectly. And though I didn’t find Fawkes to be yet a talented enough illustrator to make the project sing, there are several visual moments that are very well chosen. (The project appears to be very personal, so some level of awkward art is acceptable. I don’t require every book to exhibit master draughtsmanship like a Jiro Taniguchi or Craig Thompson.)
Unfortunately, at the end of the day, I didn’t find these small recommendations enough to win me over. I adore Fawkes’ idea and wish he’d either had the page count to make it what it could have been or proposed the experiment to a creator better suited to bringing his dream into this world. I would love to see others carry his idea into better forged realms, but I’m afraid that any creator who used the conceit in the future would invite accusations of ripping Fawkes off One Soul. Such a good idea—and I’m torn between rewarding it for how high it aimed or punishing it for failing its shot. I think this is an important book to read that isn’t very good. It’s important because it gives a hint to the vastness of the medium’s potential. But while it demonstrates a glancing view of what it might have been, it really only shows What Might Have Been.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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