Travis Dandro‘s King of King Court: A Memoir (out now from Drawn and Quarterly) is a thick book but reads fairly fast. However, this is not to say that it’s a light read. Chronicling Dandro’s childhood at age six, it intersperses glimpses of the world from a child’s eye (a cookie on the ground with ants crawling on it for example) to glimpses into the interior workings of the dysfunctional adults around him. Early in the book, Travis’s mom informs him that the guy he sometimes spends time with, Dave, is actually his biological dad. Dave is, frankly, a nightmare – he’s tall, beefy, aggressive in his t-shirt and large black shades which he never seems to take off, loves to drive fast in his muscle car, is fairly irresponsible, curses out people, and is in thrall to a heroin habit. Unfortunately, Travis’s mom still seems infatuated with Dave and the book is a series of push and pulls in their relationship as Travis’s mom goes through the cycles of fighting with Dave, trying to get away from him, and then falling for him all over again. Keep in mind that she’s married to someone else for a good chunk of the book.
You could almost say that Dave is more of a main character than Travis. Almost. Though largely unsympathetic, Dave is a tragic figure. He’s surrounded by characters who are much more sympathetic than he is. His father employs him at his lumber company and his mother invites him over for dinner. Therefore it’s heartbreaking when Dave steals from his mother’s handbag and then knocks them down when they catch him. Equally heartbreaking and even more dramatic is what happens after Dave shoots up while taking care of Travis. Travis’s mother responds by refusing Dave access to Travis and then we really see the nasty side of Dave’s behaviour. They flee to another town to escape him and at some point, Dave holds up a store which leads to Dave being caught and ending up in jail.
Cut to eight years later. Travis is in high school, deep into comics and drawing and all of a sudden, Dave is out of jail and back in their lives. Travis’s mother just can’t seem to say no. The teenage Travis must carry the emotional weight of his mother’s desire for Dave, despite his own anger and hatred of the man, and this leads to some bad decisions and some even sadder encounters. They even try living together as a family for a while. There are many small things that leaven this heavy tale of fraught emotions and burdensome choices – observations of nature, cameos by other family members, school scenes, and of course the antics and daydreams that come with childhood. However, there is such a focus on Dave and his problems (we learn later that Dave’s younger brother killed himself, possibly because of something Dave said or did, and Dave cannot forgive himself for it or change his own behaviour) that you wonder exactly what it is that Travis feels for his misguided father. In the graphic novel, Travis feels mostly anger and mistrust but what does the adult Travis Dandro feel as he constructs this memoir? What does he wish to convey?
I wasn’t exactly sure because the graphic novel is not exactly wordy and that’s why it can be read fairly quickly. The drawings are enacted in a naive children’s scribble type style. At first, I thought that might be on purpose because so much of the book is from a child’s perspective but then the part of the book where Travis is a teenager is drawn in pretty much the same way. A google search reveals that Dandro’s style outside of this memoir is not that different. There is a careful composition to the panels as Dandro has plotted out moments and compositions and pacing that exhibits care and thought but I found it ultimately difficult to swallow the drawing style. The fact that there were no conventional comics gutters between panels or at the sides of the page both immersed me into the world of the story and bothered me. It was like Dandro’s m.o. was to discharge this very raw unfiltered look at the queasy emotions of dysfunction with a minimum of process. Perhaps this was intentional. Perhaps this was not. It feels like D&Q is marketing this book to fit alongside works like Blankets by Craig Thompson or Essex County by Jeff Lemire. Even the downbeat blue tones of the cover and the thickness of the book seem to indicate this. It is a book with a unique visual look that I will remember but I can’t honestly say that’s the same as liking it.
The saga finally ends with Dave’s death, a suicide, after everything else has failed. Since we see so much of Dave when Travis isn’t there, and this breaks the point of view held by our young chronicler, you come once again to the opinion that perhaps the book is more about Dave than it is about Travis. It’s called a memoir but it doesn’t feel like a memoir. Especially because Travis primarily uses images and high pitched dramatic scenes interspersed with the relatively silent passage of time to move through the book’s storyline. He eschews narration.
How the adult Travis feels about all of this now was a nagging question I wanted answered. He ends the memoir, after the funeral, with a memory of himself as a child and Dave at the swimming pool and this would suggest that he wants to remember the good moments as well as those that are heartrending and troubling. Is it right to expect survivors and especially cartoonists to ultimately say something, to comment, on traumatic experiences? Or is simply chronicling them enough? It’s an issue I struggled with when reading My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf. I want my cartoonists to ultimately say something. It doesn’t have to be something I agree with, but I don’t want to be just put through the paces of walking in their shoes for some of their experience.
This is all to say that I’m supposed to write a review of King of King Court but I don’t know what to say about it. Critiques along the lines of it being good or bad seem to make no sense. After all, it’s one person’s difficult experience, subjectively rendered. If the purpose of art is to illuminate a certain patch of human experience, it does do that. I find myself suspecting that the adult Travis Dandro hasn’t really processed for himself the events that make up this graphic novel. I find myself thinking that the art style and storytelling reflect the possibility that Dandro might be stuck in a child-like state when viewing these events. But what do I know? And who am I to say that? It’s an outrageous claim, I suppose, and I feel bad making it. I just can’t shake the nagging feeling that after the monumental task of creating this thick book, Dandro is no closer to making meaning out of it than I am.