'Hair Shirt' is a haunting comic about the scars of memory

"Ah, young love," the poets like to sigh. But as intense and memorable as childhood (and early adulthood) romance can be, it can also be fraught with insecurity, awkwardness and trauma, a fact Canadian cartoonist Patrick McEown underlines in his latest graphic novel, Hair Shirt.

The story centers on John, a veguely insecure twentysomething who, while mourning the death of a long-term relationship, stumbles into the arms of Naomi, a former childhood sweetheart who happens to be attending the same university.

And while John seems happy to reconnect with Naomi, it's clear from the start their budding relationship is fraught with problems. For one thing, both John and Naomi are haunted by the ghost of Chris, Naomi's rather swinish older brother who died in a car crash when they were teenagers. Chris and John had been friends as kids, and there seems to be a cloud of guilt and apprehension hanging over John concerning how his relationship with Chris soured as the latter became more of an obnoxious bully. While never completely stated, John hints at horrible things that happened to Naomi in her formative years, and there's a specter of abuse -- either physical or sexual -- that haunts her and by extension John.

Certainly Naomi has baggage. She seems at times to live to make John squirm, picking up on and then humiliating him for his attraction to her extremely large-breasted friend Shazia, notably  in much the same manner that her brother Chris humiliated both of them in their younger days. Whether Naomi does this out of her own insecurity and confused feelings about sex or some other, bigger problem is unclear, but it's apparent she has trust issues.

McEown stages the book in what I like to call a "spiral fashion," best exemplified in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, where some important history is revealed in a flashback, which is then expanded upon via another flashback, and so on and so forth as the protagonist keeps returning to the memories of his youth. In between, John suffers from surreal and disturbing dreams involving dead dogs and the hair shirt of the title.

The most notable thing about the book is the rather focused use of color. McEown and colorist Liz Artinan rely heavily on a dark array of blues, purples and sickly greens to create a murky, almost hallucinogenic tone. Almost all of the book takes place at night in a rather nondescript city, which, along with John's dreams, only adds to the off-kilter tone of the book and its general sense of unease.

Though Patrick McEown is no stranger to comics, he has spent a good deal of time in the world of animation, so you might not be familiar with his work unless you've read Grendel: War Child. Personally, I remember some rather intriguing short strips he did for Dave Cooper's Weasel series and various anthologies in the 1990s, although there was nothing there to suggest he was capable of the kind of moody character study on display here.

If Hair Shirt has any problems at all, they lie in McEown's portrait of John, who comes across as such a nebbishy everyman at times that it can be difficult for readers to identify, or sympathize, with him. Part of that is intentional, as one of the central themes of the book is the danger of trusting your own skewed perceptions, and how you can think you know a person or a particular story only to realize you've completely misremembered everything. But turning John into an unreliable narrator means he's shut off from the reader in a manner that Naomi and even Shazia aren't. McEown wisely opts to not explicitly reveal what exactly happened to John and Naomi in their youth and which stories they tell each other are the "true" ones, but as a result John comes off as more enigmatic than the sharper and more interesting characters of Naomi and Shazia.

I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that John and Naomi's romance is damaged from the start. Still, they are young, and there is always the hope that they will be able to move past their problems and inadequacies to find love and happiness with a future partner if not their current one. That such a moody and at times dark book would end on an uplifting note might seem odd, but McEown manages to suggest the awareness for and willingness to change without ringing a false note of sentimentality. While far from perfect, Hair Shirt is a thought-provoking, well-crafted graphic novel and I hope it signals more work from the author in the coming years.

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