Steven Gilbert’s Colville Is Disturbing And Entrancing

by Koom Kankesan

I picked up Steven Gilbert’s Colville a few months ago. I didn’t know what to expect. All that I knew about it was that it was a Canadian work and had been a long time in the making. At first I thought that the name might be a reference to the Canadian painter Alex Colville whose moody and mysteriously noir-ish paintings are celebrated here, but it turns out that Colville is the name of the town in this graphic novel where grisly things happen. Google reveals that there is a town called Colville in Washington but there isn’t one here in Canada as far as I can tell.

Existing in a cross-hatched scratchy texture of inky blacks and smoky whites, Gilbert moodily moves the story from one main character’s POV to another. The main characters are David, a high school youth with a criminal record who loves to draw comics, Tracy, David’s girlfriend who wants to leave town with him, Adam, an ex-member of the Satan’s Angels bike gang, and Paul Bernardo. Yes, that Paul Bernardo. For those dear friends of ours in the U.S. and elsewhere who don’t know the name Paul Bernardo, he was a notorious serial killer who in the nineties, along with his girlfriend Karla Homolka, raped and killed a number of young women, including Homolka’s sister. Gilbert’s graphic novel Colville is set in the early nineties, before Bernardo was apprehended. Bernardo, now 53, is locked away, but was in the news recently. He was caught with a homemade shank in prison this February and will stand trial for this offense in October.

Bernardo’s nickname was ‘The Scarborough Rapist’ and since I went to high school in Scarborough and grew up there during the time of Bernardo’s notoriety, this book bore an extra layer of (troubling) resonance for me.

Let’s step back and take a look at some of the other characters first. Adam Gold, the ex-biker, has a son (Ryan) whom he dotes over to the point of fixing dirt bike races for him. David is asked to commit ‘one last score’: stealing Ryan’s dirt bike so that he and his confederate can sell it. David doesn’t really want to do it but sees the opportunity as a way to get out of town with his girlfriend, Tracy. And that’s of course where things go wrong – **major spoilers here: after David steals the bike, his confederate no longer wants it and Adam, never a man to leave his past history and character far behind, is out for blood. David tries to claim the (non-existent) reward Adam sets up to lure in the people who have stolen his son’s bike and the resulting, fleeting, confrontation results in David’s death. The tale is too dark to be called a comedy of errors but a fair amount of coincidence, or at least happenstance, plays into Gilbert’s work.

Adam’s shooting of David becomes the central event that Gilbert returns to pivot around in the book. It’s captured enigmatically and mutedly on the cover. Like the early films of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Colville uses this murder as the crux that brings different characters’ lives together. Gilbert pivots to another character’s point of view through this moment. The book is structured through the sometimes random ways in which these characters’ lives intersect. After the death of the largely sympathetic David at the hands of the menacing Adam, we follow Adam and gain insight into his life before and after the murder. Adam remains a largely unsympathetic character and yet, to Gilbert’s credit, we’re made to feel for him and understand something of his interior life. A flashback which explains the absence of Ryan’s mother and the traumatic circumstances which led Adam to leave his gang is horrifyingly delineated.

Tracy is the least developed of the three sympathetic characters and her life tragically intersects with the killing, too. The character who who one cannot feel any sympathy for and who looms large in the book without really being given a subjective treatment is Bernardo. Bernardo commits some horrific deeds involving David and Tracy (separately) and manages to videotape the murder involving Adam and David. Bernardo reports the murder (through an anonymous phone call) but keeps the video footage so that he can use it in his own perverted criminal acts.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Bernardo in this book. Gilbert’s rendering of him is somewhat accurate but if I didn’t know it was Bernardo, I wouldn’t have recognized him from the drawings alone. The real Bernardo was able to use his good looks and charm to trap his young female victims, but Gilbert’s Bernardo is a grinning demon who makes the reader uncomfortable whenever he steps onto the page. I don’t know what the purpose of Bernardo is in this tale of small town noir-ish happenings – perhaps to say that there is a greater evil than the mundane and misdirected felonies that plague most people? I don’t know. That is only a guess as the story itself doesn’t really weigh in on the deeds or motives of its characters.

Bernardo’s crimes against David and Tracy are rendered in such a way that the reader is put in the position of the subject of those crimes, and I found this difficult to take. I’m not squeamish in the least, but there was a sensationalism and cruelty flowing here that was disturbing. You become a victim by association. Some of Adam’s actions are fairly violent too, but since the book identifies with him (and because he’s not sociopathic or sadistic in the way that Bernardo is), those episodes seem moving rather than being truly horrific.

The book largely uses its gritty, scratchy, dark visual texture and the stark storytelling of its grim events to move through the story with an unhurried pacing that is sometimes wonderfully at odds with its content. The contrast is what throws up the wonderful atmosphere of the book, sometimes leaning towards surreality and transcendence: moments that dissolve into one another, long shots of sweeping country plains, time that loops back onto itself, a kind of attention to its characters that is at once invested and detached. Gilbert wears his eighties and nineties influences on his sleeve and though the book is dedicated to Nick Cave and Brian De Palma, I think David Lynch would also be proud!

What the book is ultimately trying to express, I couldn’t say. Perhaps Gilbert’s intention changed over the time it took to work on the project? There is a jump in quality of artwork and storytelling beginning with the second chapter (after the story switches to Adam’s perspective). I’m left with questions though. For example, why is Karla Homolka depicted as a slave who routinely gets abused by Bernardo while participating in his crimes when the historical evidence showed that their complicity was much more complex? Homolka is now free (apparently she’s living in Montreal with her new family and children and volunteers or once volunteered at their elementary school) because she got a plea bargain and reduced sentence for testifying against her partner. I imagine Homolka and Bernardo reading this graphic novel and wonder what they would think.

If I have a main complaint, it’s that the strands of the stories don’t get satisfyingly resolved. They either trail away or are left to submerge under the waves of truculent despondency that wash over this book. Its cover with its eerily muted but at the same time luminous colours and the enigmatic moment of a youth being shot (which you can’t tell is what’s happening until you read the book) is both humble and entrancing. Like Dave Collier‘s work about Canadian life, it takes pleasure in the small town, mundane scenery but is preoccupied with larger dramatic forces that go unanswered and unresolved. I enjoyed reading it very much (twice so far) and it has a strange magnetism, despite its kind of unpolished nature and uneveness. I’m sure I will most likely read it again.

Steve Gilbert self-published Colville in 2015. You can find an interview with him about the work here.