Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot
Dark Horse Books ($14.99)

by Greg Baldino

Memory and history often lie about each other, and yet in autobiographical writing this murkiness often leads to greater truths than mere facts. Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, a graphic novel written by literary scholar Mary M. Talbot and illustrated by acclaimed cartoonist Bryan Talbot, binds together history and memoir as Mary recounts her relationship with her late father and parallels it with the life of James Joyce's daughter Lucia.

Sparked by the adult Mary's discovery of her father's ID card, her train of thought traces back to her childhood in post-rationing England. Here in a household of half-a-dozen, there was no escape for Mary from her father, whose moods ran from whimsical and doting to raging or indifferent. Elsewhen and elsewhere, Lucia has different troubles of escape from her family, compounded by their dependence on her father's literary work. Both women find their upbringings shaped by their fathers and their father's relation to Joyce's work, but while Mary makes it out intact (she is the narrator, after all,) Lucia's life takes a more tragic turn.

In a graphic novel exploring memories of a woman's father and the parallels with literature, there's an obvious comparison to make with Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. Both Bechdel and Talbot examine their fathers through their emotional extremities and their literary fixations. (Bechdel's father, a teacher of English literature, was engrossed with the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, while Mary's was a Joyce scholar) The differences between them are numerous, though, not least of which is that Fun Home is the work of a solo creator, while Dotter is a collaboration between not only a writer and an artist, but a husband and wife. (This results in a few amusing incongruities, such as when Mary remarks in a footnote that contrary to how Bryan has drawn her, “My mother wouldn't have been seen dead in a frilly apron.”)

Bryan Talbot, of course, is no stranger to experimenting with different forms in the comics medium, especially with his previous non-fiction work, the graphic novel Alice in Sunderland. For Mary, it's an entrance into a new form in which her voice as a writer finds a comfortable rhythm with her husband's artwork. The three different threads of Dotter are distinguished by changes in the coloring scheme and the drawing style, a strategy that achieves not only complexity but often a transcendent beauty. The Lucia sequences are rendered in black and white with a gray wash, in a style very similar to Bryan's more mainstream work—especially in the book's climax, as the discord in the Joyce family reaches its apex. Mary's own memories are rendered with a softer ink line and sepia tones accented with additional color used to highlight young Mary's attentions, as in one panel where she looks upon the tank of tropical fish kept in her father's study that become an array of jewels on the page. The modern sequences, consisting of only three and a half pages, are done in full color with a thin line reminiscent of Hergé, and are almost unnecessary as a framing device; the entwined narratives of Mary Talbot and Lucia Joyce are compelling enough on their own that these sequences could be dropped altogether, though not for any issue of quality.

Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes is Mary Talbot's first foray into graphic novels, following several academic volumes on literature. Though her strengths as a writer are more than adequate, this book achieves its engaging complexity through the narrative tools and multi-layered structures possible with the comics page. It's a slim but ambitious volume that makes for a welcome addition to the burgeoning field of autobiographical comics.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012