December 2005

Bill Baker

gutterslut

The Moveable Feast

By now even the most closeted of individuals in this modern world must be aware that this is, indeed, the season to give and receive. And while the incessant annual chant of "Buy! Buy! Buy!" is beginning to grate on some folks' nerves at this point, this is a good time to look at books about this season, and to suggest those that might make good gifts for the comic aficionados on your list... or even provide you with a short, well deserved respite from the holidaze spree.

However, instead of giving you a rundown of books to consider, I really can't help but focus on a single book, Feast of the Seven Fishes, written by Robert Tinnell and featuring art by Ed Piskor and Alex Saviuk, which might otherwise be lost in the shuffle. Not only this book seasonally appropriate, as the story focuses on the trials and celebrations of a decidedly Italian-American family and their friends just before Christmas, 1983, but it is also one of the single best and more memorable collections I've had the pleasure of reading since I began this column earlier this year. And that's quite a feat, really, considering that this has proven to be an exceptional year for graphic novels and collections.

Originally published as a webcomic, Feast of the Seven Fishes takes its title from the traditional yuletide feast which was introduced to these shores by Italian immigrants yearning for the tastes of their former homelands, and the character of the strip reflects the diverse range of flavors and sensations inherent to that celebration. There's the sweetness and abandon of youth and young love, intermixed with the older memories and saltier lusts of their elders. There's the rich layering of the characters' hopes and needs, subtlety intermixing with the larger forces of time and change. There's the thrill of the new offset by the staid ceremonies which give our lives balance and meaning. Throughout, there's a warm and an all-encompassing love for the characters and the holiday, of what makes humanity and this season so special. But it's always balanced with the sure realization and acceptance that, even the best of things and times will never be enough for some people, and that there are those who will inevitably feel alone -- even when surrounded by a crowd of loving friends and family. These are but some of the truths about these characters and, by extension, ourselves which are secreted throughout this book. Yes, there's all that and much more captured and delivered with an unflagging assurance, wit and real passion by Tinnell and company.

As you might have guessed, there's nary a misstep by the author. The same is true of Shannon Tinnell, who both edited the book and wrote the wonderful little Feast of the Seven Fishes cookbook that closes the volume. The script is focused, yet allows for moments of reflection, and events unfold with an easy and assured grace. Even more telling for a book which is about a holiday, it is sentimental without being too maudlin, tough minded yet often funny and truly, deeply touching. It's a truly impressive performance, and deserving of real recognition.

The same can easily be said about the visual aspects of the book. The art, is perfectly suited to the tale, and executed with real brio and verve. Both Piskor, the original artist of the strip and a relative new comer to the field, and his successor, comics veteran and journeyman Saviuk, create the world of Feast with an economy and concision of line that is at times uncanny. Characters don't just appear in a panel, they inhabit it. And as the linework gives these imaginary people real weight, it lends their movements, large and small, a natural authority while also granting their surroundings and actions the air of reality. There's not a line or heavy black area laid down on the page that is unnecessary or extraneous to the characters or the story; everything the artists have put on the page simultaneously move the plot and emotional action forward. Anyone interested in learning how to create effective comic strips, how a writer-artist team can work in pure harmony, or who might want to learn some new techniques to better their own visual storytelling, would do well to study this book. Actually, it's probably worth the price of admission to simply marvel at how smoothly the torch is passed between these two fine artists.

I'm not typically a fan of seasonal stories, particularly in comics. Too often they become a sales tool, or there's too much emphasis placed upon some sort of moral message and not enough thought or space given to the needs of the story and characters, much less the reader. However, this book avoids all of those pitfalls and more, often by transforming what might otherwise be construed as "weaknesses" into strong plot points and subtly employed character traits. As such, Feast of the Seven Fishes becomes more than a "good comic about the holidays." It is, in point of fact, an excellent realistic graphic novel about regular people and their lives which happens to be set during the holidays, and an engrossing book which should provide a rich and satisfying reading experience at any time during the year. And you really can't ask for any bigger gift than that from any book.

Feast of the Seven Fishes by Robert and Shannon Tinnell
Allegheny Image Factory
ISBN: 0976928809
96 pages