Safe Havens: Second Thoughts

Posted by on August 16th, 2010 at 5:31 AM

A lot of the comics from the current “Swedish Invasion” that are being published by Top Shelf feel like American alt-comics from the mid-1990s.  There’s an emphasis on quiet, contemplative and intimate moments being drawn out for the length of an entire story.  The drawing itself tends to lean heavily on naturalism, with heavy use of grays for emotional effect.  There are a lot of close-ups of facial expressions that help tell the story, often about the ways in which relationships offer up unexpected difficulties.  All of this is true about Niklas Asker’s Second Thoughts, a comic that hits a lot of the right notes but that’s burdened with a few sour notes as well.

The concept for this story is extremely clever.  Two people living in London, both at a crossroads in their lives & relationships, meet for a moment at an airport.  That encounter has a profound effect on both of them, as it inspires a new novel from her that imagines the life of the man she just met.  For the other, a man running away from a relationship, he finds himself back in his original circumstances and realizes that a second chance is what he needed.  The central theme of the book is how we can take solace in imagining the lives of others, idealizing them as escapist fantasies.  When we actually have to live in a relationship, day-in and day-out, trying to calibrate fantasy and reality can become a fool’s errand, leaving us to chase a reality that can never be.  That sense of desperate yearning, told mostly in flashback for one character, is something Asker gets across with great sensitivity, and is primarily what rewards multiple readings.

There were three significant problems that I saw with this book.  Asker does a great job of developing his two leads, Jess & John.  What was surprising was the way he managed to make John’s girlfriend Sophia a vividly portrayed character in her own right, despite mostly being seen through John’s first-person narrative.  The problem was that Jess’ girlfriend Chloe was not nearly as well fleshed-out as Sophia.  As such, it was difficult to care much about her and her motivations, which stuck out like a sore thumb when the other three central characters were so sharply defined.  In Asker’s defense, that depiction may well have been intentional, since Jess’ self-absorption as a person may well have made it impossible to depict any point of view but hers.

The second difficulty I had was with the ending.  Asker had trouble in some spots when he wouldn’t let his images tell the story and used redundant narrative captions.  While I understood that the device used at the end was part of Jess’ novel that John was reading, it felt painfully clunky being slapped on top of the otherwise clear images.  Asker needed to trust his readers to understand what he was driving after here instead of gilding the lily.

The third problem with the book is that Asker didn’t quite have the chops to pull off some of the visual effects he was trying to impart.  In a story with some slightly dreamy elements, Asker never shook off the rigid naturalism that marks his style.  This was problematic in a key scene, where Jess and John, both defeated and deflated by their lives, collapse into bed “together” at the same time, though a city apart.  It’s a great image, but the way Asker drew it was confusing.  Part of that had to do with the overall nature of his art, which is competent but bland.  This story called for just a bit of stylization in the depiction of its images and themes, but Asker seemed more concerned with realism and how it conveyed emotion.  For this kind of story to work well, it needed a better balance between stylized expressionism and naturalism.  At this point, Asker is very close to doing excellent work.  He simply needs to loosen up a bit more and trust his storytelling abilities as a cartoonist.

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