Jun 12, 2011

Comics Cube! Reviews: The Eisner-Nominated ELMER!

Today is my mom's birthday, so everyone say happy birthday to my mom. Happy birthday, Ma!

It's also the Independence Day of the Philippines, so it's only right that I spend the day talking about some good old komiks. I racked my brain long and hard to think about what to write about, and I realized, this close to the San Diego Comic Con, I can only write about the first and only (to the best of my knowledge) Filipino work to be nominated for an Eisner Award, Gerry Alanguilan's ELMER!

Now ELMER's been nominated for the Eisner Award for Best New Graphic Album and for the Prix-Asie ACBD, so there's not much I can really say that will tell you that it's good. I will, however, tell you why you should read it.

ELMER takes place in a world where chickens have suddenly become intelligent and conscious, and can speak just like humans. Now you might think that sounds "cute," but then you think about what that would entail. How would the chickens adjust? How would the humans react? How would politics change? What would happen to KFC? What would become of the chickens used in cockfighting? Gerry answers these questions, as well as others that you may not have thought of and may not be intuitive. The result is a very intricately crafted world, relatable characters, and a really touching story.

The story of ELMER starts in 2003 (which I think at the time of original publication was the present day), and we follow a rooster named Jake Gallo. We're given the time to get to know him as he goes through his morning routine, then to a job interview, then to the hospital where he talks to his sister, and so on.  Jake is called to his dad's deathbed, and when Elmer dies, Jake inherits his diary. Jake's kind of an aggressive personality, so if he had carried the book on his own, it may have been overwhelming to the readers, but it's actually the type of personality that was perfect for a character who spends the rest of the book learning about the history of his father, Elmer, and his race.

In the diary is Elmer's account of the history of intelligent chickens. Because of his personality, Jake sometimes rashly reacts to what he learns and talk to people in the present day about it — thus bringing us back and forth between Elmer's diary and firsthand accounts from the people who were there. Narratively speaking, Jake is the perfect protagonist for the present-day scenes.

What really carries ELMER for me is the art and how well it tells the story. Gerry Alanguilan is a licensed architect, and it shows. The backgrounds are filled with rich and technical detail, right down to the last leaf of a tree or the last stone in a pile of rubble. Gerry uses hatching, cross-hatching, and curved-hatching to depict environments and set moods. In terms of technique, the book is a masterpiece, and you can see it from pretty much any page.

This technical precision is displayed most prominently in the chickens, which by their very nature requires many lines to depict accurately. The realism of the chickens makes the entire environment of the book rather staggering, and the kind of effect it has is covered in my previous installment of Comic Book Glossary. Essentially, due to the chickens looking real, we are reminded of their otherness in a stark way that wouldn't be there if they were drawn in a cartoony manner (that may just cross the line into funny animal territory, and this is decidedly not a funny animal book).

The words "technical precision" being tossed around in this review may make it sound like Gerry's art is cold, but that's not the case at all. Gerry's faces and figures have such expertly depicted expressions and body language, and it carries the story brilliantly. The layouts are straightforward grids, conveying the story quickly and rapidly. To put it simply, you get lost in the story, and Gerry gives each panel the appropriate size and shape for the moment. Here's the page from the first issue that really hooked me on the book as it was presented to me.

And that was shown to me without any context. I mean, if that page doesn't sell you on the book, I'm not sure anything can or will. For all its exquisite detail, the sheer emotion from each character and the atmosphere of the moment still gets through to you.

The characters also all ring true, and are all relatable, be they man or chicken. We've all felt protective over a little sister (or a similar type) who's started dating whom you perceive to be the wrong man; we've all known people who are afraid of the unknown and express that fear with anger; we've all known people who have been the victims of such hate grow angry over time, and so on. My only complaint, I think, is that for one of the characters (Jake's sister May), the dialogue sounds inorganic and stilted, mainly because May doesn't use contractions. That's unique to that one character, though, and she's hardly in the book, so it's easily overlooked.

At its heart, ELMER is a story about coming to terms with your past, about a boy learning about his father's life, about friendship, and ultimately, about acceptance in all its forms. Do yourself a favor and pick up this book, because you will never regret it.

You can learn more about Gerry Alanguilan here at his blog, read the first issue for free here, and vote for him in the Eisners here.

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