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Derek McCulloch is one of those writers who ought to be more widely known, but he isn’t. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t write comics too often, but he’s written some really good comics. His last book, Gone to Amerikay, was excellent, and I was kind of surprised that it didn’t get more love. Coming out tomorrow is his latest, Displaced Persons, which has had quite an odd history. McCulloch writes in the acknowledgments that he conceived it in 1999, finished the script in 2007, and is now getting it published. It’s been solicited before, at least five years ago (I could go back and check, but I won’t), but for whatever reason, McCulloch had issues with the artist at the time, so it went back to the drawing board (so to speak). Anthony Peruzzo is the artist now, and the book is finally coming out from Image. Of course, the question is, should you buy it?
I don’t want to give too much away about the book, because part of the fun is not knowing quite what’s happening when you launch into it. McCulloch tells stories set in San Francisco in three main time periods – 1939, 1969, and 1999, with a few quick side trips to 1879 and 1909 – that involve the same family. In 1939, we meet Garland Price, a private investigator who’s hired by a wealthy ex-bootlegger to find his daughter and her fiancé, who have disappeared. In 1969, Price’s twin grandsons, Daniel and Richie, are the focus – Richie is a policeman and Daniel is a hippie who skirts the wrong side of the law, and they get involved in a case involving a drug dealer. In 1999, Daniel’s daughter Lily is involved in some domestic problems after having come through some big issues in her life herself. The fascinating thing about these three stories is that they’re all compelling on their own, but McCulloch links them all with … well, that would be telling. The book is a bit science-fictiony, but I don’t want to give away any more about that.
McCulloch’s stories all deal with “displaced persons,” but the great thing about the book is that while there are obvious hints about the title, we slowly come to realize that the title refers to far more than just the obvious. In the first story, the missing girl and guy – Lucy and Jerry – are the “displaced” people; in the second story, Daniel and Richie play the roles at certain times; in the third story, we think it’s Lily, but it’s also her husband, Mike Martinez. But McCulloch isn’t satisfied with just the obvious, and as you read the book, you begin to see more of the ways he’s showing how people become “displaced.” He writes about the way people live in society and how that society can provide a place for them or reject them. There are characters who hide their sexual identity, their ethnic identity, and their “regular” identities. Characters are ashamed of who they are, and they react violently to those who they feel could reveal those things about which they feel shame. As it’s 1939, there’s also the specter of Nazism, as Price’s assistant, Davy Abramowitz, has fled Austria and doesn’t know where his family is. He’s displaced for a far more tangible reason than others. McCulloch, who has a bit of a sentimental side, shows how people bond together, even if they’re “displaced” – Davy becomes a part of Price’s family, but two other characters also enter the orbit of this sprawling clan and become attached to it. One of them, in fact, becomes far more important in the third story than we expect. Those that reject family are those who founder in isolation, and while McCulloch tries to remain objective, it’s clear that the people in the story who are as close to villains as we’re going to get are those who, for whatever reason, don’t appreciate the family they have. While other “displaced” persons might find a home, those few are truly lost.
It’s an elegantly structured book, and McCulloch does a very nice job with a large cast of characters. Price, Davy, Adam Hayes, Marty Faro, and Sterling Brewster, among others, are very much from the 1930s. Daniel, Richie, Amber, and the others in 1969 speak and act differently, reflecting the changing times. In 1999, Lily, Mike, and Chad are much different from the other time periods. Sterling and Chad are the two gay characters, and it’s interesting seeing how similar and different they are or have to be, in Sterling Brewster’s case. Meanwhile, the change in what kinds of ethnicities are “okay” to reveal are also interesting, as two different men in different times try to hide where they come from. McCulloch does a good job even with someone like Mike, who’s kind of a douchebag, but whose desperation about his financial situation is clear and understandable, even if his attempts to fix it lead him to unjustifiable territory. The fact that McCulloch gets the time periods down well is crucial for the book, but again, I don’t want to say anything else about it. I have one small problem with the book, and it’s tied into the way it ends. I know it ends the way it has to, but because it’s a devastating event, it seems like a person we’ve come to sympathize with would fall apart, yet McCulloch doesn’t delve into that. Again, the way the book works, it’s not … important? I guess?, but it’s still a bit sad that something would happen to this character after the person has overcome so much. But it’s a minor complaint, because it’s not really where McCulloch wants to focus his energies.
I can’t remember who the first artist on the book was, but Peruzzo does a marvelous job. His line is very sharp, making a lot of his characters look slightly boxy, but that’s not really a bad thing, just an observation. He works with a lot of thick lines for the figures but softer lines for the backgrounds, which gives the book an interesting, naturalistic feel. The people stand out, but the finer lines in the backgrounds create a living, breathing world, against which Peruzzo places harder, man-made objects. Like McCulloch, he does a good job distinguishing between the three time periods – the 1930s are a bit more formal yet harsher, the 1960s are looser and more casual, while the 1990s are sleek and modern. He ages the characters well, as they need to age over the course of the book, and he does a good job showing why certain memories wouldn’t click in the minds of certain characters. He utilizes what I can only think are computer effects in a few crucial instances (where the book turns to sci-fi), which works really well as a cue to the reader. The script is emotional, and Peruzzo does a nice job interpreting the way characters feel and getting that across. He colors the book, as well, and the choices he makes are interesting. He uses a clichéd sepia tone for the events of 1879, but he uses a cool blue for 1939, which makes it feel both sleek and sad, as the 1930s were the Art Deco years but also the Depression years, and the color choice kind of encapsulates that. In 1969, he uses a reddish-brown palette, implying a seediness creeping in. The light green of 1999 feels like a sickness, which, as it’s the chapter that deals with the most disturbing subject matter, might be the point. The color choices are nice, and they don’t overwhelm the reader – Peruzzo uses a light palette and a lot of blacks to balance things out. It’s a very good-looking book, artistically.
Displaced Persons took a long time to get here, but it’s worth the wait. It’s the kind of book that makes you think, and once you start thinking about it, you realize how much deeper it is than you even thought it was. McCulloch doesn’t give us any easy answers, and he shows a wide range of human experience in these pages. The science fiction aspect of the book is handled well, and the down-to-earth sections are absolutely wonderful. I’m pretty sure it will be on my list when I start thinking about the best graphic novels of the year. It arrives in stores tomorrow, and I encourage you to track it down.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
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