Often, the most powerful and moving stories are told through the medium of comics or graphic novels. Words which by themselves may contain the distant echo of thunder burst with raging intensity when paired with the right illustrations. Sometimes, when words fail to convey the full range of emotions on display, a single well-drawn illustration may highlight the depth of feeling in a way that transforms both text and drawing, strengthening each as they are bound together to create a moving story.
Filipino illustrator and writer Gerry Alanguilan's most recent creation, Elmer, is a powerful story whose strength lies not with the illustrations (well-drawn and vivid as they are) nor with its prose (although several lines, particularly in the latter half of the novel, reverberate in the reader's mind long after the final page is read), but with how adroitly he combines the two to tell a story that is as profound as it is personal. The reader might find herself reading the first couple of pages and then thinking, "What the hell? Why is he casting a chicken in the role of the angry, discriminated against minority figure? C'mon! It's a freaking chicken!"
And then comes that "Oh, fuck! What did I just think to myself now?" moment and it is there where Alanguilan's story takes flight. Once the reader comes to terms with what that first casual dismissal might say about them, then that reader is open to consider just what Alanguilan is exploring in this daring, take-no-prisoners story. Reminiscent in its basic structure (the relatively-privileged child trying and often failing to understand what the traumatized parents have been through) and choice of animals to underscore divisions based on creed, ethnicity, or behavior to Art Spiegelman's classic Maus, Elmer explores issues of identity, self-loathing, prejudice, discrimination, and violence in vivid, memorable scenes.
Elmer opens in an alt-Earth in the year 2003. Chicken have been sentient since a sudden awakening in 1979 and have held full human rights since a UN declaration a few months afterward, following a brief yet bloody worldwide war between humans and poultry. Yet despite the outward shows of acceptance of their newly-found fowl brethren, tensions still run high between the two sentient groups. Jake Gallo, the son of the famous chicken writer Elmer, is introduced as being enraged at the unfair treatment he perceives he has received at the hands of humans. Yet before we see his rage, we see his lurid fascination with a human former child star, Anna Rosie. Alanguilan does not hit the reader over the head with these conflicts Jake is experiencing; he merely shows it in passing and leaves it to the reader to connect the dots.
As Jake struggles to deal with his frustration and to find a target for it, we are introduced to his family, each as complex and engaging as Jake himself. We quickly learn that Jake's father, Elmer, has recently died from a stroke and it is his secret diary, willed to Jake, that serves as the entrepot to the fascinating, often tragic past of his father. As Jake reads his father's diary, we see several flashbacks to Elmer's early sentient days, as he witnesses slaughter on a scale of the Holocaust in its devastating impact on its survivors. Yet Alanguilan does not limit himself to just that. He shows, via several chickens and humans alike in Elmer's live, just how complex life can be with each grudgingly holding on to a deleterious opinion of "the other." It is a strange, brave world which we see unfold. Yet through all the turmoil and destruction, there are tender moments of reconciliation, such as those between Elmer and his human neighbor or between Elmer's daughter May and her fiancé. Sometimes, it's as simple as watching the sun rise and remembering that there is something special about living to see another day.
Alanguilan's artwork is more than up to the task of accentuating and further developing the complex themes explored in the narrative. His sentient chickens contain a sense of individuality that might otherwise be nigh impossible to represent adequately with just prose another. The stark black-and-white images complement the narrative action beautifully. These images, when combined with the nuanced text, create an indelible afterimage that lingers in the reader's mind. Elmer simply is a powerfully-written and drawn tale that utilizes the best storytelling elements of narrative and illustrative formats to create a deeply personal and moving story which explores a complex mindfield of emotions and prejudices in a fashion that could never be accomplished as adroitly if it were told as a traditional narrative. Elmer is not a story to be read or viewed, however; it is to be felt within for its full effect to take place. Highly recommended.