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Review time! with One Soul

Yeah, this is a weird one! But that’s why we love comics, right?

One Soul is the latest graphic novel by Ray Fawkes, who is best known (?) in comics circles for, I don’t know, The Apocalipstix, maybe? Mnemovore? Anyway, this is his latest book, and it’s published by Oni and costs $24.99. Plus, many comics luminaries are quoted on the back of the book – Kieron Gillen, Jeff Lemire, Brian Wood, J. H. Williams III – so if you purchase books based on the stature of those quoted on them, this one’s for you!


(This is how the book looks when you open it)

Fawkes dedicates this comic to his son, who died on the day he was born in 2010, but I don’t know if he was working on it before that tragic event or if he mused about the idea because of that. That event colors the reading of this book, which is interesting, because it’s one of those things that seems to shield it from criticism. I’ve been the target in the past of people who take me to task for criticizing something that is meant as “therapy” for the author, and I’ve pointed out that the once the author makes it public and charges money for it, it moves past that and becomes a text like any other text. That’s why I’m interested in whether Fawkes was putting this together before or after the death of his son. A horrible event like that can’t help but stir up emotions about life, God, justice, and what happens after we die. Believe me, I know. But I can’t let that interfere with whether this is a good comic or not, because it’s a piece of fiction. I hope it was beneficial to Fawkes to write this, certainly, but the question has to be, Is it worth your time?

One Soul is a difficult book to review for another reason. It is much more of a prose-ish poem than a narrative, although you could argue that there are 18 different narratives running through it. Fawkes is simply presenting the life stories of 18 different people, and the title of the book implies that they are, in fact, the same soul, continuously re-incarnated. Throughout the book, he implies this even more strongly, as the narrators repeat themselves in different incarnations, linking their thoughts across centuries (plus, there’s an event that makes it more explicit – I’ll get to that). But the narratives are disjointed, skipping years, not forming what we would think of as “stories” – these are, as close as a fictional piece can be, snapshots of lives, some of which are more “important” or “interesting” than others, but none of which follow a true arc. Unlike many other books, One Soul is something you must simply feel, and whether you feel it or not will determine whether you think Fawkes is successful. Yes, many books appeal to your emotions, but One Soul does it without backing it up with discernible and recognized writing techniques or even gorgeous artwork. If you allow yourself to be swept along on this ocean of humanity, it’s an impressive journey. When we try to discern what great points Fawkes is making, we run into problems.

The biggest problem is whether he’s actually making any points. We might say that Fawkes is looking for meaning through the lives of his characters, but he’s not doing it so deeply that it overwhelms the book. He uses a nine-panel grid throughout the comic, and each panel in the grid shows one character. When you open the book, the left- and right-hand pages show 18 panels, each a different character (see above). The top-left panel is the oldest character, a hunter-gatherer from pre-history, while the bottom-right corner gives us a girl who lives very recently, dying perhaps in the 1980s. These characters are born, grow up, love, fight, work, play, perform, dominate, and die. After they die, their panels go black, and Fawkes then uses those panels for text – presumably it’s the soul, working its way through its doubts about existence and its place in that existence. In the end, there’s only one panel, and when that character dies, the book ends. Fawkes unspools a great deal of human history in the book, but because he’s trying to make the characters as universal as possible, it’s difficult to care about any of them, really. That gets back to whether you’re emotionally affected by the book or not. If you view it as emotionally powerful simply because of the ambition, the scope, and the tragedy of brief lives that struggle to make something only to be cut down too soon (as some are) or have their world ravaged by time (as some experience), it’s worthwhile. For me, the problem is that something keeps me from fully investing in these characters. I’m not sure what – yes, I’ve been accused of having a black, black heart before, but that doesn’t mean it’s true and that nothing affects me emotionally, as I can barely make it through Doom Patrol #63 or Hitman #60 without choking up – but it feels like that because Fawkes wants to expand his scope to encompass all of human history, he erects a wall between the reader and the characters, and this becomes a bit more like a philosophical or historical treatise rather than a true “story,” such as it is. Now, I like a good philosophical or historical treatise as much as the next guy (who doesn’t?), but I don’t often get emotionally invested in them. One Soul feels like a book that someone who is just musing about God without really worrying about answers would write, and that’s too bad.

What is interesting is to see what choices Fawkes makes with regard to his characters. Despite the book’s heavy spiritual leanings, the presence of organized religion, so important to humanity, is either ignored almost completely or presented negatively. One character becomes a priestess of Athena, but she becomes disillusioned later in life. Two characters are intimately connected to the Catholic Church, but one is abused by priests and rejects the church, while another lives through one period of plague in Europe and begins to curse God. One character is Muslim and enjoys slaughtering Crusaders, but his religion has very little to do with it. Fawkes shows these characters yearning for something more than their lives, and I find it interesting that they have very little to do with an organized religion during their lives. The last character to die is a 19th-century performer, and while I don’t know what it means, I do find it curious. A final interesting note about the characters is how Fawkes links them, as I noted above. He not only has them repeat some key phrases, but when the first one dies, Fawkes gives us a beautiful page of 17 eyes and one panel of the character dying violently, and in the next two 18-panel grids, the characters react to the death in many different ways. Like most of the book, Fawkes doesn’t explore this (and I’m glad he doesn’t), but it’s out there, tantalizingly, for the rest of the comic.

Fawkes is not a great artist, but he gets the job done. His art has a Paul Gristian roughness to it without Grist’s confidence, and as Fawkes doesn’t often draw his own work, I have to believe he wanted this to be a personal project so he made do with his own work. It’s not that the artwork is bad, because it’s perfectly legible and some panels are powerful. It’s just that once Fawkes made the decision (the correct one, I think) to stick to a nine-panel grid, he was locked into a very specific kind of artwork. Someone like Keith Giffen, who has famously done entire series in nine-panel grids, is able to pack a lot of action into those grids, but Fawkes is uninterested in that. He wants to get across stark moments in the lives of these characters, so he concentrates on the people, using a lot of close-ups and not a lot of action. When he does action, he often shows the aftermath – a sword through a helmet’s eye slit, an arrow in a shoulder – and when he backs up even more to show a “long shot,” the perspective is often skewed because he’s trying to jam it into the panel. Considering that six of the incarnations are warriors or at least fight in wars, that becomes a problem, but Fawkes doesn’t linger on the battle scenes too much, so we can move past them easily. The best art in the book is when Fawkes focuses on one character reacting to something – he does a lot with facial expressions despite keeping the linework simple.

One Soul is a complicated book, and that’s a point in its favor. I don’t love it, and I kind of wish I did. However, I do like it and I appreciate Fawkes’s ambition, which always earns a book a bonus from me. Fawkes is introducing concepts that humans often struggle with, and he makes sure that his characters don’t all think about this stuff (the characters are very different, despite being linked) and that they each have unique lives. They question things in different ways, and once they die, the soul becomes more reflective and similar to the other “dead” panels, which is a nice trick. That the book doesn’t quite work for me isn’t really a demerit; that’s just the way it is. Fawkes is appealing to something that is a bit beyond logic, so it’s hard to express what works or doesn’t work. You jump into One Soul with both feet and hope it takes you away. I was almost swept away, but I guess I kept getting snagged on branches by the shoreline. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the journey!

6 Comments

This is probably one of my favorite reads this year. And the pacing up to and through the first character’s death is a gut punch. You know it has to be coming sooner or later, and the way that he constructs that sequence is masterful

If nothing else, this is a wonderful use of the humble 9 panel grid…he’s play with that form is worth the price of admission alone. I do however, disagree on the narrative question…while I don’t think any easy answers are spoon fed into the mix, I do think there are narrative arcs that play out in individuals lives as well as over the entire arc of incarnation. A slave owner and slave are given mirror images to one another on the grid…I can only assume that’s an intentional placement. Connecting the narrative in non-linear ways is a good deal of the fun of the book.

Manglr: You’re right about the pacing of that sequence. It’s impressive.

I disagree a bit about your narrative statement, although mainly because I think that Fawkes is going for a kind of “anti-narrative” thing, in that everyone, including you and me, have a narrative – whether it’s structured like a “traditional” narrative doesn’t matter. I do think that he places things very deliberately, like with the slave and the slave owner, and I still think the performer surviving the longest means something, but I’d have to think about it a bit more. It’s really the difference between a review and criticism – I like to review things after I’ve read them once, and it’s rare that I re-read something before I review it. I keep it next to me to refer to it, but basically, I’m going off a first impression. I think most readers want that (I could be completely wrong, of course) just to decide whether it’s something they’d like to read. It’s up to them what they do with the text after that!

I do think I’ll re-read this, though, because it’s nice and dense. I’ll have to see if I revise any of my initial thoughts!

I’m sorry to say that it really didn’t work for me. I absolutely appreciated Fawkes’ effort at experimentation here and some of his panel choices were great, but the overall project just didn’t win me over. The narration felt laboured and so rang a bit false to me. As well, I never empathized with any of the characters (save for maybe with the Parisian entertainer?) and instead found myself simply reading to find out how they’d die.

One additional dissonance for me was how much effort these characters put toward navigating the theism/atheism question only to have it sort of undermined by the reincarnative aspect of it all. Of course all fictional characters that come out in favour of atheism tend to fail in their goal for the simple reason that all characters have an author—that is, within the scope of the book, there is always a God Who Determines Every Last Thing. That dissonance must exist in every fictional work that deals with the question but the authors aren’t usually so overt in robbing their characters’ arguments of their teeth.

So you’re a doctor who loses faith and rejects God? Haha, so what, now you’re an upper class lady, Boom! Wait, now you’re an orphaned vagabond, Boom! Now you’re an American patriot, Boom! Hard to give up believing in the supernatural when Now you’re a WWI pilot/ WWII medic/heroin junkie!

Here’s a question: The last life in One Soul ends in maybe the early ’80s? Do we know when Fawkes was born? Is this soul supposed to be his throughout the ages? Did he just approximate the age of his reader and this is the readers story? I have to imagine some significance to the fact that the book ends nearly 30 years ago.

Seth: It’s too bad it didn’t work for you – it sounds like you liked it less than I did, and I didn’t love it but I didn’t hate it. I don’t know about your last question – without having the book in front of me, didn’t Fawkes dedicate to his stillborn son? Perhaps that’s something he was thinking about when he wrote this.

You make an interesting point about the fact that in fiction there’s always a “god” – I hadn’t thought of that. Very keen!

When I finally read this last week, I wanted to go back and see what you thought of it. In my memory, I had thought you’d given it pretty low marks, maybe given it a mild recommendation or something. You ended up like it a little more than I remembered but still not unreservedly. Then I noticed it hit #8 on your year-end list and figured you must’ve read it again and it grew on you—which is always a rad thing.

I think you probably did like it more than I did. I for sure didn’t hate it. I thought Fawkes’ central idea was amazing (with a capital zing!). I just didn’t think the execution was very good. It probably doesn’t help that I don’t really enjoy poetry and his narration kind of plays like free verse. Still, I hope Fawkes will continue experimenting, because this is the kind of thing I love to see.

As for the dedication, yeah, that was my first thought. But the last life ends some twenty-five years before his poor son died—which makes me wonder if One Soul is his own story. Oh well, maybe there’s no real answer, but the question is definitely great book-club fodder.

It did grow on me, but I remember putting it #8 mainly because I thought the good things – the experimental aspects of it – outweighed the parts I didn’t think were that successful. Trying something new goes a long way with me, and when it’s wedded to a great story or art – like Vietnamerica – it’s brilliant, but even when it’s not quite, I still give it more consideration. I think, ultimately, this is a book that is good to own, even if Fawkes doesn’t quite succeed in everything he tries.

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