North Country by Shane WhiteIn North Country, author and artist Shane White mines his memories for a graphic memoir of troubled childhood. The story begins with a quick four-page telling of a previous life that ends before it begins. Then the setting abruptly shifts to an airport where a young man frets about his flight from Seattle to Albany. We soon find out that anticipation is not the energy feeding his anxiety.
Upstate New York in North Country is a hellish place to be a kid. Besides the unforgiving winters that force closeness, the population seems caught in a web of mental illness, alcoholism and despair. Even a child's seventh birthday party is blown apart by violence. In this chilling anecdote, a laughing group of boys in party hats play under a purple wash. The selfless joy in giving homemade gifts is snuffed by adult anger, then silenced by adult guilt.
Unfortunately, White never fully uses the comic medium to his advantage. The images of himself lack weight and identifiablity. Even his father at his most frightening barely registers as more than a stock everyman, with or without beard, with or without grimace. The backgrounds and colors of each set of panels stay, but the faces of his story slip away. We don't see this man as White must have seen him -- a huge problem for this deeply personal story.
When White tells the meaning of the pictures in words (which he does too readily), he often glides into cliché at his most dramatic points. In one short story of disappointment, White's mother makes him a Superman cape that he believes will offer him protection against the laws of everyday life. When the cape fails to allow him to soar across the sky, he is crushed. Where White could have allowed the final panels, drawn with a nod to superhero comics of the past, to show his childhood realization, he offers up this: "I had believed you could accomplish whatever you set out to do. That's what Mom said anyway. The lies unfolded before me. First Santa Claus, now this. I felt duped! I wasn't sure about anything anymore. What was right and wrong? What was imagination and real? Were my dreams just a narcotic slumber from this harsh reality?" What could have been a powerful depiction of lost faith is drown out in White's clunky commentary.
Though this is a memoir of childhood, a bit more time dedicated to White's teenage years, his move to Seattle and his apparently successful life post-Upstate would've helped the story. There are three panels dedicated to the work of healing -- adolescent self-help browsing, shirtless reading, and possibly post-adolescent debauchery -- but neither the pictures nor the words quite satisfy. White's life is still in transition in the last pages; the hopeful tone seems false, a victim of poor writing, and unsatisfying because we don't really know enough of the years that passed between the boy crying in the fishing boat and the young man on the airplane.
White's skill lies in his ability to show the shifting quality of memories, the way that they slip into one another and become something else. The icy cold and the smell of cigarettes and beer breath come through the years. He shifts moods by changing colors and styles, which is especially effective when he steps outside his home and into the landscape of his solo wanderings. In one memory shard, White shows us the lush greens and browns of his surroundings. Boy-White explores alone, but fills his world with super-monsters and fabulous escapes. The sense of adventure is palatable, and gives a great contrast to the routine danger of home.
This ability alone does not carry this book. In the end there are too many stories included. North Country leaves the reader with a hazy mass of shifting, uncomfortable images. Focusing on a few poignant tales could have made this first book memorable. Instead, the copious fragments of White's memory overwhelm, and by the book's end the inherent drama White's journey to an understanding of his parents and himself is lost.
North Country by Shane White
Nantier, Beall, Minoustchine Publishing Inc.