From Wonderland With Love: Danish Comics in the Third MillenniumEdited by Steffen P. MaarupFantagraphics Books, 176 pages, $29.99.
Why I Killed Peterby Alfred and Olivier KaNBM, 112 pages, $18.95.
Sexual abuse, particularly pedophilia, is a tough subject to handle in any medium, let alone comics. It requires a delicate touch, a sympathy for the victim and the supporting cast (though not necessarily the perpetrator), an understanding of all the conflicting emotions involved and a willingness to go for broke -- to express the sheer horror of being violated both mentally and physically at such a young age in as honest and unflinching a manner as possible.
Two recent (or relatively recent at any rate) comics attempt to broach the unbroachable, but in wildly different ways. That both are successful has less to do with the grave severity of the subject matter than the particular talent involved and the unique perspectives they bring to their stories.
From Wonderland With Love is an anthology — an up-to-date collection of comics by notable Danish cartoonists. There's a lot of good, imaginitive work here, though nothing, per se, that is going to make your hair stand on end, leap out of your chair and exclaim "Jesus Christ on a bike!"
With one exception. That would be Because I Love You So Much by Nikoline Wedelin. Let me try to offer a point of comparison for a moment. Imagine if Lynn Johnston decided to tackle the thorny issue of child abuse in her daily comic For Better or For Worse by having the dear old grandpa character start groping youngest daughter April when she was about, say, four. And let's say that Johnston decided to keep it all within the rhythms of the daily comic strip, punch lines intact, but never once sacrificing the horror of the situation for a cheap laugh or denying the horrible grandpa his humanity.
That's what Because I Love You So Much is. It's a four-panel comic strip about a little girl who's sexually abused by her grandfather.
The amazing thing is how well it works. Wedelin's punchlines are not of the sitcom variety but arise naturally out of the characters' personality. The mom, dad, daughter and other family members behave more or less like you would imagine real people would when faced with a trauma like this, and the jokes come, not at the expense of the material, but out of their very real anger and frustration.
The story unfolds in a natural fashion as well. The mom (I didn't catch her name) notices her daughter Aline is behaving oddly, talking about sexual things, getting into fights with playmates and generally acting like she's withholding something. Mom casts her suspicions about wildly, raising alarmist fears in the neighborhood about one of the day care workers before finally taking the child to a counselor and learning the horrible truth -- her father is the culprit.
This is the most harrowing comic I've read, well, I want to say ever, but let's quantify a bit and say since the last time I read anything by Phoebe Gloeckner. Letting the story play out in a four-panel gag format doesn't cheapen or otherwise harm the emotional impact of the tale but actually accentuates it. Heightens it even, because it Wedelin does such a masterful job of keeping the story grounded in reality. I was especially impressed with how she was able to devote time to every character and permit us glimpses into their thoughts and feelings (she does an especially good job with little Aline). Even the monstrous Grandfather is offered some moments of humanity. Her take is ultimately not just a single focus on a horrible thing that happened to a little girl but how it rippled out to become a family tragedy that left no one unscarred. It's one of finest comics I've read this year.
Why I Killed Peter on the other hand, has a much narrower point-of-view and smaller cast of characters, though it's no less impressive. It's told from one point of view of author Oliver Ka, who at the age of 12, was molested by a Catholic priest at summer camp.
Ka and artist Alfred take their time setting up he story. We begin by viewing Ka's reaction to the traditional Catholic religion his stoic grandparents abide in. This is contrasts highly with his parents' hippie, laissez-faire attitudes about religion and sex.
Bridging that gap is the bear-like Father Peter, who plays guitar, tells jokes and generally acts like no priest Ka has ever met before.
Ka admires and loves Peter and enjoys going to the summer camp the priest has set up. Then one day, while at the beach, the priest confides in Ka. He has trouble sleeping. It would help if someone could rub his belly at night to help him fall asleep. Would Olivier be willing to do that?
Desperate to be cool, to be liked by Peter, to show that he's not uptight, Olivier agrees, even though he knows there's something wrong . Up until this point the one-name artist Alfred has adopted a thick brushed, big-head, cartoonish style. As the terrible night draws near though, that changes. The art becomes rougher and splotchy; forms become silhouetted and indistinct. It's a bravura bit of cartooning, absolutely chilling when combined with Ka's first-person narrative.
Unlike Because, which ends in limbo, with the characters unsure how to proceed in any positive manner, Peter does ultimately have an uplifting message. After spending years refusing to acknowledge the trauma he suffered, Ka eventually does confront it. He writes it all down, collaborates with Alfred, and even get the unexpected opportunity to confront a now-elderly Peter. He is ultimately able to bury the past and move forward.
That's a nice life-affirming message, but it's not really why I'm recommending Peter anymore than the reason I'm recommending I Love You So is because of it's shocking juxtoposition between format and topic. In attempting to handle such delicate and troubling subject matter, both stories manage to achieve a genuine artistry -- Ka and Olivier in their blend of traditional and abstract cartooning tropes combined with straightforward autobiographical narrative; and Wedelin in her thin-line, verite, laugh-so-you-do-not cry attitude. A lot of comics these days tackle controversial or "important" subjects these days, and sometimes you get the sense they're being touted merely because of what they're talking about and not how they're saying it. That's not the case here.