October 2009

Benjamin Jacob Hollars


Refresh, Refresh by Danica Novgorodoff, Benjamin Percy, and James Ponsoldt

Benjamin Percy’s short story “Refresh, Refresh” has a long and ever-evolving history. First published in The Paris Review, it soon found its way to the 2006 edition of The Best American Stories series before becoming the title story of Percy’s 2007 collection.  Most recently, with the help of the extremely talented Danica Novgorodoff and James Ponsoldt, it’s been reinvented once more, this time in the form of a graphic novel. 

Yet it is this latest transformation that leads us farthest from Percy’s story, Novgorodoff and Ponsoldt taking necessary liberties in adapting a 5500-word story into a 138-page graphic novel. No simple task, yet the addition of back-story and compounding complexities between characters manages to stay true to the original text. It is as if Novgorodoff and Ponsoldt took hold of Percy’s narrative thread and simply kept pulling, expanding the world to include younger brothers and love interests and the prospect of college -- all possibilities lingering just beyond the periphery of Percy’s original work.

“Refresh, Refresh” is a war story told on the home front, one in which the distinction between allies and enemies often become blurred. After the town’s fathers leave for war, their sons are left to fill the gaping void, growing up fast and punching hard, in the hopes they might express with their fists what they could never express aloud.

Like any visual adaptation, the success and failure of the project hinges on the question: How does the shift in medium serve to enhance the original work? In this case, it replaces our reliance on words with pictures, enhancing the overall tone by offering a visually stimulating, cinematic depiction. But Novgorodoff takes it a step further, relying almost entirely on image. What prose remains is crisp and haiku-like, its primary function to propel the story while leaving the pathos to the pictures.

And without question, the pictures fulfill their task. 

One wordless frame reveals three shirtless boys hitting one another with penny-filled socks while a fore-grounded video camera films everything. Rather than resorting to language, Novgorodoff relies on the makeshift battle ring and the half-melted snow to set a scene that resonates far more powerfully with the reader.  Without wasting so much as a single syllable, the image screams, This is the world of violence we created and this is how we endure it.

In another example, one frame shows a deer startled by an overheard airplane while the very next frame shows Josh, the young protagonist, refreshing his email in the hopes of hearing from his father. It is this juxtaposition of the disruption between the natural and the unnatural, the hopeful and the helpless, which creates such a powerful, unspoken bond between reader, writer and artist. 

And this bond is what allows the characters’ pain to transcend the pages. While we feel both the longing and the brutality experienced by the characters, what hurts the most is what’s never expressed aloud; the pain burbling just below the surface, begging us not to flinch as we view both the pretty and not-so-pretty pictures.

Refresh, Refresh by Danica Novgorodoff, Benjamin Percy, and James Ponsoldt
First Second
ISBN: 1596435224
144 Pages