A review a day: <i>Second Thoughts</i>

Oh, those crazy Swedes. They didn't stop with giving the world ABBA ... now they give us this graphic novel!

Top Shelf has been promoting their "Swedish Invasion" graphic novels for a few months, of which Second Thoughts (which is $9.95, by the way) by Niklas Asker is one. But this takes place in London! What the crap is up with that? Don't these Swedes know they should write about their own country? Sheesh.

Second Thoughts is quite good.

I thought I'd point that out right away because if someone were to ask me, "What's it about?", I'd be hard-pressed to answer them, and I've read it twice (it's not long). Plot is entirely secondary in this book. It's much more about the way people experience life and what makes them love and remain with or leave people. The lack of a strong plot means that it's hard to describe, especially as Asker's story becomes more and more dreamlike, with seemingly different worlds intersecting at crucial moments.

The set-up is easy to summarize. A young writer, Jess, arrives at Stansted Airport in London (which isn't really in London, but what the hell), where she's meeting someone. While she's waiting, a man takes her picture. He's a professional photographer named John (or maybe not, as we discover) and he tells her it was a good photo, so he took it. She's not put out by it at all - that's not the story - and their encounter ends very quickly. They never meet again, but that one brief moment changes their lives. The book still remains straight-forward for a time, as John returns to London (he tells Jess he's going to New York because he's running away), Jess waits for a few days for the person she's waiting for to return, and both of them move on.

John is trying to run away from a failed relationship, while Jess isn't sure if her relationship is working out, and they both have decisions to make. Asker follows both of them as things become more and more confused with both John and Jess.

It's very difficult to get into "what happens" in this book, because Asker isn't interested in that. He's interested in the choices John and Jess make as they think about their relationships and how things change, sometimes without anyone really doing anything different. At one point John thinks, "It's a terrible feeling when you realize you don't love someone anymore." He hasn't changed, his lover hasn't changed, but suddenly, there's nothing in his heart. What Asker does is show us that the smallest things can push us one way or another - John's flight being cancelled forces him back to London and forces him to deal with his loss of love in a more adult manner, while Jess missing her pick-up and meeting John spurs her into action to finish her novel and also changes her relationship in a way she hadn't foreseen.

Asker moves these two characters closer and closer until we're not exactly sure if John or Jess really exists, or if they're a male/female yin/yang deal, or if they're living in parallel dimensions, or if they're just missing each other in time. That's why it's hard to describe the latter half of the book - Asker marvelously blends their lives until they almost, but not quite, overlap, and their options become a different reality for each of them.

Asker keeps us guessing, because it doesn't matter if John exists or if Jess exists or if they both do. What matters is the idea of small moments leading to big decisions. Both characters experience new passions and new longings thanks to their brief encounter, and Asker follows those through to the end. Neither character's story is forced, as each decision flows naturally from what has come before. In the end, it's a happy comic, despite what the characters go through, because they make their own decisions. The unexamined life isn't worth living and all that, and both Jess and John are forced to examine their lives, and they're better off for it.

Asker has a nice, restrained writing style - he certainly gives us enough information about the two main characters, but when he allows them to move through their world, he tends to back off, which is nice.

He doesn't do many fancy things with the art, but he does a nice job showing how John and Jess are occupying the same spaces, perhaps at different points in time, perhaps in different worlds. He does some nice things with point of view to keep us guessing about who's really in a scene, and when both John and Jess find a certain place for comfort, it's a beautiful image of lonely people coming to terms with who they are. Asker's not a brilliant artist, but he is quite good, and he does a very good job with his complex maze of a book.

Second Thoughts is a quiet meditation on small moments snowballing into bigger life choices and what spurs us to make those choices. It's a haunting comic, and Asker deliberately makes it ambiguous and invites us to puzzle it out. It sticks with you because we've all had those moments where we made a choice and wondered if it was the right one. Second Thoughts allows John and Jess to reconsider their choices, and it resonates with us for that reason. It's a neat comic, and I encourage you to check it out.

Tomorrow: I just wrote about the best Vertigo crime novel so far, but now another one has trumped it! Oh, the suspense!

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