Review time! with Gone to Amerikay
I have a confession to make. As much as I like the Pogues, I am not Irish (my grandfather was Scotch-Irish, my middle name is Maxwell, and you can actually visit my castle in Scotland, if you so choose) and I find the maudlin Irishness of Irish stories about Irish immigrants rather annoying. Yes, we get it, you’re pining for County Cork and good stout and you think the martyrs of Easter 1916 are the greatest people ever to walk the earth. WE GET IT!!!!!
With that being said, I did buy Gone to Amerikay, the new graphic novel by Derek McCulloch, Colleen Doran, José Villarrubia, and Jared K. Fletcher (if you don’t know who did what, you obviously don’t read enough comics and should rectify that right now!). It’s a nice, hardcover book that costs $24.99 and is published by Vertigo. I bought it not because it’s all Irish and shit, but because the description sounded interesting and I like both McCulloch and Doran (I like Villarrubia and Fletcher, too, but let’s be honest – their names aren’t going to get me to buy a comic book). So there!
The best thing about Gone to Amerikay is that it succeeds despite the fact that it’s about immigrants. We’ve all read or seen stories about the “immigrant experience” before, especially that of the Irish, so McCulloch has to do something different to make this interesting. He does that by coming up with a mystery that spans over a century, from 1870 to 2010, with a stop in 1960 in between. He jumps back and forth nicely between each time period, showing how the threads of the characters’ lives come together. In 1870, we meet Ciara O’Dwyer, who arrives in New York with her daughter Maire. She’s waiting for her husband, Fintan, who stayed behind in Ireland for a bit but has promised to come soon. In 1960, Johnny McCormack comes to New York to be an actor, but it turns out he’s a much better folk singer than actor, and he soon finds himself singing with a friend of his, Brian Fitzgerald. Finally, in 2010, Lewis and Sophie Nealy fly into New York. Lewis is some kind of business executive, I think, although I’m not sure. He and Sophie are the ones who untangle the mystery of Ciara and Johnny and how they’re linked.
Ciara’s story is the basis of the mystery, as her husband remains absent and then a friend of his, Tim Shea, tells Ciara that Fintan went off to India with the army. Tim, of course, puts the moves on Ciara, but it’s clear he’s a terrible rogue, and Ciara slowly realizes what kind of person he is. He does, however, introduce her to a lot of people in New York’s questionable society, and Ciara learns quickly how to survive. It’s quite a nice story, because McCulloch doesn’t overdo the “immigrant” aspect of it – Ciara is just a woman with a daughter, trying to survive a scary world and hold onto her dignity. The fact that she’s Irish isn’t as important as the fact that she’s alone at a time when it was difficult for women to live on her own. She’s always clever, but her experiences with Tim make her tough … much to his surprise, as it turns out.
Meanwhile, Johnny’s story is much more concerned with the social mores of 1960 and the tension between mainstream and beatnik culture than his Irishness. His is the most “Irish” of the stories, mainly because he sings Irish folk songs, but as his story goes along, he discovers his sexuality, begins an affair with his friend Brian, and learns what being gay means in 1960 New York – and it’s not all bad, which is interesting. Johnny is as naïve as Ciara, in his way, and he learns quickly about the cutthroat world of the entertainment business. Both his and Ciara’s stories are tragic love stories, in different ways, and it’s interesting how McCulloch writes both of them very well, so that they’re never mawkish or trite. We have a feeling neither of their love stories will end well, but because of the modern story, we have a sense that they do eventually find happiness, and that helps temper the tragedy of their everyday lives a bit.
McCulloch ties it all together in 2010, where we learn the way Lewis is connected to Johnny and the way Johnny is connected to Ciara. There’s even a ghost, which adds to the “magical realism” of the book – only one person sees the ghost, so who knows if it’s real or not? By giving us a modern-eye’s-view on the two older stories, McCulloch is able to avoid one of the annoying parts of any mystery – when the author deliberately withholds information that’s crucial to figuring things out. By switching back to Lewis learning all of this as he goes, the reader is able to stand in the story as Lewis, waiting for Sophie to explain it all. It’s a good trick, and keeps a nice tension going, because like Lewis, we’re anxious to find out what’s going on, but Sophie, as a good storyteller, takes her time.
Both McCulloch and Doran do a very good job giving us a sense of the changes in New York over 140 years. More than once we get a double-page spread with the three time periods occurring at the same spot in the city, and it’s neat to see how the background changes. Sophie takes Lewis on a tour of Five Points and shows him places where Ciara lived that no longer exist, but Doran does a very nice job giving us the idea of what did stand there. She’s always been, to me, a gifted if unspectacular artist, and that’s what we get here – she’s very good at telling McCulloch’s story, but nothing really blows you away. What you get with Doran is a solid comic – it’s laid out very well, it’s clear, the characters are varied and interesting and unique, the details are magnificent. McCulloch’s lyrics (whether he wrote them or not, I don’t know) and Doran’s characterization give the musical sections a great deal of life, which is always difficult for comics to convey. The “musical” pages don’t have panels, as they flow together in one, grand drawing, helping the flow of the lyrics. Doran does this a few other times, too, like when Ciara tells a story of a tragic pirate queen, and when she does, it has a nice effect because her “realistic” pages are so grounded. She does a very good job making McCulloch’s story look great, and that’s what we’re looking for, isn’t it?
I Strongly Recommend Gone to Amerikay, if you must know. It has two very nice love stories, an interesting mystery, and while I don’t think it’s as important in describing the “immigrant experience” as the pull quotes on the back do, I do think it’s a good view of America over the centuries and the way people relate to each other in the United States. It’s a very good-looking book, and it keeps you wondering where it’s going next. That ain’t bad!