We're Not In Texas Anymore
"What a great idea, coming out here to Hawaii! Wonder what it would have been like if I’d gone to San Francisco instead?"
These are the last thought balloons, and the one final panel, that flash through the mind of Tobias Grimm, self-proclaimed ‘crusading investigative journalist’, as he counts to ten preparing to be executed. In Hawaii (ISBN 2-914553-12-9, 10 Euros), Grimm might not have wound up here, on a deserted island about to be shot, staring at an exotic luggage label on a sinister trunk he’s just had to bury at gunpoint. The noir twists and turns of Grimm’s fairytale life entangle him with dodgy cohorts from his past, like failed newspaper editor Freddy, suspect priest Father Joe, a femme fatale exiled from Ukraine, home of his late father’s millionaire crony Kukharskiy. And somehow, through all the drink and drugs, Grimm starts remembering a delicate situation involving a dwarf that forced him to flee Atlantic City. This hack reporter exemplifies one of the myths of modern America, being able to move on, start again, reinvent yourself, a new town, a new life.
To be strict, Hawaii is not a British graphic novel. For one thing it’s published by Éditions Flblb in Poitiers, France in French. And its author, Matt Broersma, was born in Texas, raised in a religious commune till the age of six, schooled in San Antonio, left Texas to see the world, studied in New York, visited England, taught English in South Korea and Japan, got a journalism degree in California and worked as an Internet reporter in San Francisco. But this man of the world has been living and working here in London now for several years, and Hawaii was written and drawn here, so let’s claim him as one of ours. Especially as his full-length debut is so vigorously playful and bittersweet. I’d already been alerted to Matt’s recent smart booklets self-published in the UK, but I discovered that over the years, he’s had an on-again, off-again romance with creating comics. In his teens in Texas he had decided to become a comic book artist. "During the comics boom of the 1980s I self-published a lot of mini-comics. The best one was Throkk the Barbarian, of which I drew thirteen issues. The characters and ideas were copied wholesale from the comics I liked at the time, and the style changed from issue to issue, depending on what I had been reading lately." Leaving home for Vassar College, New York, which was three-quarters women, cartooning lost its allure. Later, while he was in Japan, he was surrounded by manga produced by an industrial system he had no access to. It was only on his return to the US in 1995 that he started drawing comics again, when he discovered the new alternative comics scenes in America and Europe. "A shop called Comic Relief in Berkeley imported some of the new French comics, including the books of Ego Comme X, l’Association, Le Cheval sans tête and Éditions Fréon, as well as some of the mainstream French comics from the 1980s and 1990s that I’d never seen before. Compared to the French comics scene, American mainstream and independent comics alike seemed colourless and uniform." Abandoning a science-fiction graphic novel, he got some shorts published in anthologies like Top Shelf and the silent 2000-page Comix 2000. He recalls, "There were a few other cartoonists in the area, like Brian Biggs and Steve Weissman, not to mention Daniel Clowes, Richard Sala and Adrian Tomine, but there was no community to speak of. People kept to themselves. Then I moved to London, which seemed like a much more interesting place." This move gave him better access to the French comics publishing industry, and more distance from what he saw as the "rather bleak American comics scene. "Coming to Europe also aroused new interest in some fine artists who are usually dismissed as old-fashioned or elitist in America, particularly the School of Paris and the German Expressionists. A lot of these early-twentieth-century artists crossed over into popular media like posters, prints and book illustration, something that sadly doesn’t happen very often now. To me an ideal art is something like those prints, posters and illustrations, at the same time personally expressive and accessible to a wider public."
Perhaps comics could fit the bill. For Matt, Hawaii represents his "rebellion against the assembly-line nature of comics in America, where even many alternative comics try to imitate the manufactured look of mass media. I wanted my book to be just the opposite, personal and messy and hand-made. It should have intimacy of a hand-written letter, or a sketchbook drawing, with all its flaws. Instead of technical perfection I wanted it to have improvisation, personality and energy." To me, across the 41 black-and-white pages of Hawaii, his most noticeable bande dessinée inspiration is the loose, free-flowing energy of Joann Sfar, with hints of Tardi and Mathieu. "At the same time, I thought it might be possible to find a middle ground between the personal expression of alternative comics and the pleasures of mainstream classics like Warner Bros cartoons or Tintin." Again like Sfar, Matt handles this balancing act surprisingly well. You can sense the boisterous pleasure he finds in weaving quirky dreams, unresolved intrigues and striking atmospheric landscapes into his unfolding tapestry.
Hergé‘s boy scout reporter is a far cry from the seedy excesses and self-aggrandizement of Tobias Grimm, who has more in common with the writings of William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. Grimm’s story grew out of Matt’s life as a journalist. "The world I had discovered in California was one of unrestrained greed and dehumanising technology. When I started out, I hoped that by making a comic book about my experiences there I could come to terms with that world. It didn’t really work out that way. When you try to analyse something like that, you discover that there’s nothing there - it’s just an emptiness. You find that what you’re really looking at is yourself." This is what gives Hawaii its chilling undertone, as Grimm ends up reinventing himself again and embarking on a career in crime. Fortunately, Matt has opted now for a career in comics, or at least for another romance.
Posted: June 18, 2006
The original version of this article appeared in 2003 in the pages of The Comics Journal, the essential magazine of comics news, reviews and criticism.