Review time! with An Elegy for Amelia Johnson
An Elegy for Amelia Johnson is another graphic novel from Archaia, whose output continues to be widely varied and well produced. Andrew Rostan writes it, Dave Valeza and Kate Kasenow illustrate it, and Dave Lanphear letters it. No one colors it, because it’s in black and white. It’s $14.95, for those who care about price (and none of you do, right – we’re all loaded, right?).
I really wanted to like An Elegy for Amelia Johnson, and the fact that it doesn’t quite live up to the creators’ ambitions is disappointing. The subject matter is touchy, one that can lead to great art or schmaltziness: A young lady named Amelia Johnson is dying of cancer, so she enlists two of her best friends – who’ve never met – to travel across the country and visit various people she can’t and show them DVDs she’s made telling them how she feels about them. Along the way, she asks the two friends – Henry and Jillian, the first a filmmaker, the second a writer – to capture the journey on film. Henry and Jillian both have bad luck in their relationships and appear to have no chance to ever find someone special, plus they both have personality problems of their own. Where, oh where, could this story be going?????
Rostan doesn’t quite slide into schmaltzy, but he comes close, and it’s too bad. We meet Jill when she returns from a vacation in Venice and promptly dumps her boyfriend, for no very good reason. Henry, meanwhile, has won an Oscar (for a documentary, presumably), but his latest film is about German refugees after World War II, and the studio head doesn’t think he really cares about the material. Jill, who wrote a novella that made her famous, is stagnating in her job as well. It’s the perfect time for both of them to go on a road trip and re-discover their passion about storytelling. Henry thinks Amelia’s illness and this journey will provide him with great footage that he can capitalize on commercially. Jill just wants to get away from her job. In the introduction of the characters, Rostan gives us a snapshot of what we can expect throughout the book – Long, Deep Stares and Words Full of Meaning – even in the lighter moments, this comic takes itself far too seriously, even though Rostan, to his credit, does try to lighten the mood occasionally. As the two go around the country, they meet an old boyfriend, a mother figure, and Amelia forces Henry to speak to his estranged father and she begs, via film, for forgiveness from her brother, whom she treated shabbily when she was younger. Again, to his credit, Rostan doesn’t simply go for the easiest path – Henry and his father don’t reconcile, for instance – but even the wayward route he occasionally takes feels like he’s trying too hard. One person praises Amelia, so it feels like he needs to introduce a dark secret from her past, one that, of course, haunts her (in a way that also feels forced). Another person praises Amelia, so we have to meet her brother, who tells Henry and Jill that she was a bit of a snot. Henry won’t hear anything bad about Amelia, so Jill has to point out her flaws. Amelia can never be all those things at once – she must be angel or devil, but never both at the same time. At the end, Rostan introduces a strange religious angle to the book that, while might feel right as the consequence both of her regrets and because she doesn’t have long to live, is simply dropped in with some hints about inappropriate behavior and with that secret I alluded to above driving Amelia instead of an honest desire for supernatural strength. Rostan thanks God in his acknowledgements, so I assume he’s a Christian and that he wanted to introduce that as a source of comfort for Amelia in her last days, but it doesn’t feel like it flows from what we already know about the character and because the story of her religious awakening is narrated by someone else, we can’t know the depth of her feelings.
The way Rostan structures the book is a bit problematic, too. In documentaries, we expect to see a lot of talking heads telling us stuff, but that format doesn’t translate all that well to comic books, and while the story of Henry and Jill unfolds pretty well (even though we know exactly where it’s going, Rostan does give them some interesting scenes), there’s too much of characters simply telling us about Amelia. It’s a consequence of the way Rostan chooses to tell the story, but because he gives equal weight to Amelia as a character and to Henry and Jill (he should have concentrated far more on the couple), it’s hard for him to get around that. Amelia is a starring character and that helps turn the story more into a documentary rather than a narrative, and it doesn’t work as well.
The art team of Valeza and Kasenow (it’s unclear who does what; Rostan writes that Valeza couldn’t finish the book and Kasenow “added the final touches” – the two artists seem to have similar styles, so I don’t know if Kasenow pencilled any of this or just inked it) do a decent job, although the character work is much better than the scenic work, which is often bland and somewhat disproportionate. Valeza and Kasenow have a sort of “Archie Comics” look to their art, which may or may not bother you. There’s nothing too spectacular about the art, but it gets the job done. Something that bothered me but may not bother anyone else (I’m weird that way) is the tears in the book, of which there are copious amounts. They don’t look like tears, they look like snot tracks, and it was disconcerting whenever I saw it:
Again, that’s just me. Generally, Valeza and Kasenow do a solid job, getting across quite well the mopiness of Henry and Jill (which sounds like a backhanded compliment, but as they are often mopey, the artists really need to convey that, and they do) and the fragility and quiet inner strength of Amelia. Valeza and Kasenow pack the pages because Rostan asks them to, but the book is never confusing.
Like I wrote, I really want to like An Elegy for Amelia Johnson more than I do. There’s a good story in here struggling to get out, and while this isn’t on par with a Lifetime Movie starring Tori Spelling, it veers a bit too close to that territory for me to really enjoy it. Rostan tries to keep mawkishness out of the book, and when he succeeds, you can see the good story behind the sentiment. It would be nice if he cultivated that aspect of his writing.