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Review time! with Two Brothers

by  in Comic News Comment
Review time! with <i>Two Brothers</i>

“We depend on one another; love him, that’s the only way”

Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá are, of course, terrific comic book creators, so anything new by them is cause for celebration.

So, naturally, I was down for Two Brothers, their adaptation of Milton Hatoum’s novel, which comes to us from Dark Horse (with edits by Spencer Cushing and Sierra Hahn) and costs $24.99. It’s a fancy, 228-page hardcover, and of course the twins make every page count!

Two Brothers might be an adaptation, but it feels like a comic the twins would come up with on their own, as it fits their sensibilities pretty well. It’s a multi-generational family story, full of secrets and jealousy and hatred and pain. Yeah, I know it sounds like so much fun, but it’s really gripping, as Bá and Moon tell the story of Omar and Yaqub, but it’s fascinating because they’re not really the main characters. The protagonist is Nael, the narrator, who lives with the family but isn’t really part of it (it’s explained in the book) and can therefore act as a somewhat impartial observer (he’s not really, but he’s the closest one we have). The story is less about the brothers than the way the rest of the family reacts to them, which is an odd but effective tack to take. So early on, we get the decision to split the brothers (they’re twins) up, as Yaqub gets sent to his ancestral home in Lebanon while Omar stays with the family in Manaus, Brazil. At one point, Yaqub hints that he really didn’t go to Lebanon, but that’s not really important – what is important is that for several formative years (the years of World War II, in fact), the brothers were apart.

Prior to that, they weren’t really that close, and when Yaqub returns to Brazil, they grew further apart. The story also takes us back to the twins’ parents’ courtship, when Halim, their father, wooed Zana, the 15-year-old daughter of a local restaurateur. She was an only child, and wanted three of her own once they married, and she got it – Yaqub and Omar, and then a daughter, Rânia. Even before the sons were born, they had brought an orphan, Domingas, into their house, and she became, if not exactly their child, at least their dependent. Zana is devoted to Omar, to the extent that she drives Yaqub away to Lebanon, and she never takes his side in the many disagreements he and Omar have. Yaqub becomes a prosperous businessman in São Paulo, while Omar stays home and becomes a dissolute drunk, always looking for the next get-rich-quick scheme. This is a tragedy, so very little good occurs in the book, but it keeps you on the edge of your seat, because you never know what’s going to happen next.

The story is gripping because of things it doesn’t say, like why Zana is so devoted to Omar. The fact that she’s 15 and an only child when Halim marries her feels crucial, as is the fact that her mother is dead. She seems to want a strong man in her life, and because of her loneliness, she latches onto Halim first and then her son.

But she also needs, it seems, only one anchor, and she picks Omar – perhaps the fact that he’s the second-born makes her believe he’s weaker and she can dominate him, which she does. Zana is fascinating, as she tries to find people to manipulate, and after she’s done with Halim, she moves onto Omar, but nothing brings her happiness. Yaqub isn’t in the book all that much because he wants to leave the family behind, but he can’t really escape their gravitational pull, and it’s gripping to see how the two men react to each other, Omar with rage and Yaqub with calculation, and Nael points out that despite Yaqub’s more “civilized” manner, his deviousness is as damaging as Omar’s blind anger. Yaqub has a scar, and how he gets it is terrifying, but he later gets revenge on the person who does it in the most satisfying way possible, but it also gives us a mirror into his personality, as it feels like the choices he makes are always calculated to cause others emotional harm rather than make him happy. It’s a great story because the characters rarely talk about what’s on their minds, but we can infer so much by how the characters act. No one is given short shrift – it’s clever how Rânia, for instance, has an entire life almost in the background while the rivalry between the sons plays out, until she emerges at the end full-grown and fascinating, moving out from underneath her mother’s thumb beautifully.

The story takes place over several decades (Omar and Yaqub are born around 1925, but we go back to 1914 for the courtship of Halim and Zana, and it ends sometime in the 1970s, it seems), so we get to see long-past events come back around and we can view them in different lights, which adds wonderful depth to the entire book. We get a bit of the political rumblings in Brazil during this time – not too much, just enough to make us aware that bad things are happening, as the military coup of April 1964 is obliquely referenced because it has an impact on Nael’s education and shows us that Omar isn’t completely a monster. Brazil’s diverse ethnic community is also prominent in the book – Domingas is a native from well upriver, and she goes back once but doesn’t leave the boat for fear that she’ll never want to return, while Omar falls in love with a woman from the wrong side of the tracks that his mother rejects partly because she’s black. The story doesn’t make a big deal about the divisions in Manaus’s society, but it’s always there, adding yet more depth to the book.

Even if you don’t love the story (and you might not – I mean, how can I tell?), the book is worth getting because of the art. Whenever the brothers work together, I’m always wondering who does more of the pencil work, but it doesn’t really matter too much, as they work so well together and they’re both superb artists.

This is a bit more “Bá-esque” than “Moon-esque,” if you must know, as when Moon works by himself, his lines are bit smoother and just slightly less cartoonish than Bá’s solo work, but it doesn’t really matter. The brothers’ work on this book is stunning, as they take us right into Manaus and the house in which the family lives, drawing beautiful architecture in dozens of panels, giving us a great sense of history weighing on the characters. The interiors are crammed with ornate and old-fashioned furniture, making them wonderfully claustrophobic, and the brothers don’t skimp on the exteriors either, as the Amazon jungle comes right up to the doors in some places, filling the panels with thick, sensuous vegetation, which makes Halim and Zana’s energetic sex life something more primal. Whenever characters go outside, we get a tremendous sense of Manaus as a place, full of people going about their business, and the few times we go outside the city, we also get a sense of how isolated it really is, deep in the jungle like it is. The sense of movement saturates the book – there’s an amazing scene at a party where Omar’s latest lover dances, and the characters swirl across the page. The violence is the same way, visceral and immediate, so when it comes back to haunt the characters, we don’t have to think about why that is – some things are just too hard to forgive. We get a good sense of time moving forward, too – the cars on the street slowly get updated, the fashions change, and late in the book, the unctuous and louche Rochiram embodies the worst aspects of the 1970s.

The use of black in the book is amazing, too – the twins use shadows to create stunning natural settings, such as sunset behind clouds or the roiling waters of the Rio Negro, but they also turn the house into a mausoleum as the characters die or leave. In some scenes, they light the setting from below, throwing faces into sharp relief, and in others they simply use heavy blacks on faces to imply the gathering darkness. The final page of the book is stunning, as they use heavy lines to age a character, place him on the edge of the encroaching jungle, and drench both the character and the scene in shafts of ink to show how far the character has gone. It’s a culmination of the beautiful work of art that the entire book is. It’s the kind of comic that you can open to any page and stare at the art and always see something new, which is pretty cool.

Two Brothers is a terrific comic, and I’m always glad when talents such as Moon and Bá can do stuff like this instead of having to toil for corporate comics to make a living. Their work on more “fun” comics (Casanova, The Umbrella Academy) is always nice to see, but they’re great artists because they can do stuff like this and not miss a beat. This is a heart-wrenching book, but it’s almost impossible to put down. Don’t you owe it to yourself to read it?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆

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