There’s a journey every male inevitably goes through (aside from finding a go-to beer or aftershave). As wee little kiddies, we see our fathers and grandfathers as these Herculean characters, full of enough raw power to re-shape the very world. As we become men ourselves, we then have to face reality, and take time to understand the truth of these figures, which often means dashing our childish notions of masculinity and life’s inherent whimsy.
In his new graphic novel Adrift, writer/artist Gregory Mardon lets us in on his own such journey, with spellbinding and deeply moving results.
The 100-plus-page memoir recounts the life of Mardon’s grandfather, Adolphe “Dodo” Hérault, from his days in pre-WWII Northern France as a butcher boy to his time in the Navy to raising a family Tunis and later Arras, and on through a most bittersweet ending. Along the way, Mardon utilizes a few tools and storytelling tricks in order to paint a most gorgeous picture of Dodo’s truly epic life.
Perhaps the most essential part of this tome and its overall arc/message is the artwork itself. Mardon’s stark, minimalist style eschews color and depth for sheer intensity. Even still, it leaves ample room for key details, moving the story and further developing the world with as few strokes as possible. But it’s the people that jump off the page – Dodo especially, whose chiseled good looks make him the epitome of an action hero.
By chipping away at his muscular stance and pronounced chin slowly and steadily over the book, Mardon shows the ravages of time with gut-wrenching effectiveness. At the same time, Mardon can slap a smile line on his grandmother, Carmen, and deliver an equally dizzying display of earnest beauty. It’s this efficiency and use of emotion that pulls you into the story, and makes the sentimental blows land that much harder.
Adrift is essentially broken up into two periods/sections: Dodo’s early life and Navy shenanigans and the rest of his life as dad, husband, and grandfather. The first section is like a proper, old-timey comic book, with Dodo bounding between a series of wild events (like he and his mates lighting a wild boar on fire and playing with sharks on a naval cruiser).
Even amid the abject horrors of WWII, Dodo’s adventures feel as fun and breezy as any child might experience when told these tales years later, bouncing on grandpa’s knee. (Though that’s not to say the war sections aren’t any less harrowing.) Everything in this first chunk feels so bright and alive, like life in the middle of a picture book, and there’s a glee and delight as everything spins toward a fairy tale ending.
The tone (both in terms of storyline and the color and overall feel of the art) then shifts abruptly when Dodo settles down for the remainder of his life. Gone is much of the whimsy, and we start to see Dodo for who he is: a man getting older. Losing touch with the power he once had, struggling to keep his family afloat, and dearly missing his life of mischief and adventure (but probably not all that time in the ship’s brig).
As Dodo inches closer to the end of his life, we’re forced to follow alongside Mardon as he tries to get a sense of the soul within, dissecting life and tall tales with respect to someone so very dear. It happens so slowly and methodically that there’s no escaping the pull of such soul-searching.
In this way, Adrift feels very similar to Tim Burton’s Big Fish. Only, instead of the mostly ambiguous ending, we get a bit more gravity to Dodo’s over-the-top existence. Toward the end, Mardon muses about Dodo’s grand adventures, writing, “So what if he’d exaggerated some parts of his life? I’d rather believe it was even more amazing than that.” That’s an essential point: we have to face the inevitability that the men in our life weren’t perfect, and had tremendous shortcomings.
But rather than outright lying to us, Mardon postulates that they’re providing the sort of brain fuel that makes men achieve great things. The fact that there’s some truth-polishing involved is only another life lesson: the world is mean and ugly, so hold on to some of your magic. More than feats of strength and thrilling spectacles, this is the crux of Dodo and what he leaves behind for his family (Mardon especially).
The downside of magic, though, is that there only seems to be so much to go around. As a result, some of the characters are denied the very chutzpah that makes Dodo so deeply special. Sure, he’s the main character, and his ascension plays up both the inherent narrative and the book’s exploration of masculinity. But there are quite a few moments where I wanted to see more whimsy and attention applied to Mardon’s brood.
For instance, Mardon could have expanded moments between Dodo and Carmen (so much there, both romantically and how relationships evolve or sour), or Dodo and the author as a teenager. Without the extra emphasis, these rich souls feel like bit players in Dodo’s theatrical life, pawns in a grander story that’d be even more evocative because of their pronounced presence. In this way, Mardon denied a richer narrative for the sake of a character’s vanity, and while that character dazzles, it’s hard to deny that a certain gap exists.
At the end of the day, this isn’t just a touching tribute to a father figure, or an exploration of the male ego. Mardon crafts a poignant tale that’s ultimately about the people we call family, and what they mean to us. The choices we make concerning these kooky folks, and what that says about them and us and the way we choose to live our lives. In this way, Adrift will find a welcoming port in readers everywhere.