Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Review: The Listener

The Listener, a graphic novel written and drawn by David Lester, follows an artist named Louise who creates political sculptures.  A man who was inspired into action by her art dies while trying to hang a protest poster from a tall building.  Feeling a strong sense of responsibility for the man's death, Louise travels to Europe in an attempt to escape her overwhelming guilt.

The trip to Europe signals a change for Louise.  Instead of using her art as her voice, she finds herself now as a listener; listening to the stories and tales of the people she meets while traveling around Europe and visiting art museums.  Through these people and places Lester imparts a wealth of interesting information about art, artists and the regions in which Louise travels. 

The most important people Louise meets while on her travels are an elderly couple named Rudolf and Marie.  Rudolf and Marie are originally from Lippe, a small state in central Germany.  During the early 1930's Rudolf and Marie were part of the DNVP or the German National People's Party, a political group that squared off against Hitler's Nazi party during a pivotal 1933 election.  Marie and Rudolf share the story of how Hitler and his party utilized aggression, fear mongering, shady political deals, and propaganda to solidify party power in the country.

The Listener is one part travelogue/art history lesson, one part German History lesson, and one part a look at how people process guilt.  From reading this graphic novel it is extremely clear that Lester is man who has done his research.  His knowledge of art, various art pieces and museums lent a great deal of realism to Louise's travels through Europe.

I appreciated the level of detail and information Lester presented about the 1933 parliamentary election in Lippe.  Lester managed to present the information without making me feel like I was reading a history text.  Instead, he neatly fit the history pieces into his narrative without breaking the flow of the story.   Lester used a few nice tricks to accomplish this, but my favorite was how he used actual quotes in his speech bubbles.

The Listener flits between Louise's travels, her conversations with Marie and Rudolf, and flashbacks to Hitler's scheming.  These roving view points create a well paced narrative that kept the story going at a nice clip.  A hangup that slowed down that pace was the dialog between Louise and other characters, which at times felt pretty dry and unnatural.

Lester was able to cover up some of the clunky dialog with some solid art.  There were a couple conversations, one between Louise and a man she just met where Lester only shows their feet and one between Hitler and Eva Braun, where Lester's art only depicted their hands.  Brilliantly, Lester was able to portray the awkwardness, tension and emotion of these conversations through small changes in the positions of the hands and feet. 

Though there were times when I really enjoyed Lester's art, there were also times when I struggled with the art.  Though I was impressed with the hands/feet scenes, there were times when I felt character's faces and bodies failed to impart meaning and emotion on behalf of the speaker, which is definitely a reason why the dialog felt flat to me.

Unlike some comic artists out there who rely on tried and true methods, Lester experiments with some unique ways of depicting the story, which was sort of hit or miss with me.  Lester evoked a very haunting feel when Louise visited a concentration camp, a situation where the art told told the story extremely well.  There were other times, like when the figure of Hitler was drawn in shards during one of his speeches in Lippe, where I felt like I wasn't quite "getting" all that Lester was trying to get across in that scene.

I may have been  a bit warm and cold with the art, but its important that I mention I've never really encountered art like that of The Listener.  It is by no means the art I've come accustomed to in my other comic/graphic novel reading.  Much of my hit or miss enjoyment of the art likely comes from me getting used to a new style.

Though I enjoyed The Listener for the history it presents, the level of craftsmanship and research that make the story breathe with life, and the challenge provided by the art, I did find the story lacking in tension.  This comes from my own lack of connection with Louise, the primary character.  For my money, the story needed more focus on her struggle to overcome guilt and regain her artistic voice.  I never really felt like I was engaged by the character or her struggles.  This created a lack of tension in the story which made Louise's struggle, and the overall experience less engaging. 

The Listener is a definite divergence from my usual reading in the comic medium and I enjoyed reading something that felt fresh.  Lester was able to tell a fairly interesting story in The Listener and excelled in providing an interesting look at a piece of German history as well as provide an art lesson. People looking for a break from their usual graphic novel reading will find that The Listener can provide an interesting, and thought provoking read.

Grade: C+


Jean Smith said...

Here’s an interview with David Lester on UMFM, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, June 2011.


“A dense and fiercely intelligent work that asks important questions about art, history, and the responsibility of the individual, all in a lyrical and stirring tone.” — Publishers Weekly (New York)

Available through AK Press http://www.akpress.org/2011/items/thelistener

Ryan said...

Jean- Thanks for the link. I'll have to check that out.