The Birthday Riots
I started re-reading this graphic novel travelling on the tube in London on May 1st 2002, the day assorted groups of anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, environmental and anarchist protesters gathered across the capital for the annual May Day marches and demonstrations, and the accompanying overblown riot police presence and media circus. I finished re-reading it today on May 3rd, the morning after local government elections across England showed a modest but measurable increase in votes, particularly in certain economically struggling and ethnically divided regions, for the racist British National Party. At the same time, more disturbing still is the stealthy rise of the National Front in France, which this year has elevated its leader Le Pen into a presidential candidate and pushed the French Left into third place and out of the race entirely. The Left now have to make the choice on May 5th between Le Pen and the Right’s scandalized charmer Chirac, between ‘the fascist and the crook’, voting, one can only hope, for Chirac as the lesser of two evils. At the same time in the traditionally tolerant Netherlands, flamboyant right-wing gay candidate Pim Fortuyn is attracting voters with his tough anti-immigration and anti-Islam stance. Here and elsewhere, maverick right-wingers seem to be appealing to voters, who have grown disillusioned with the traditional parties and want to send them a ‘wake-up call’. These signs suggest that an insidious brew of xenophobia and racial prejudice may be percolating across Europe, which makes The Birthday Riots all the more immediate and thought-provoking.
The place of the homeless, the gypsies, the so-called ‘travellers’, in Britain is a central question in Nabiel Kanan’s latest graphic novel. In a surprising development from the almost timeless, placeless teenage summer of his Eisner-nominated Lost Girl of 1999, Nabiel Kanan has grounded his latest 60-page story in contemporary British politics and in the crises of conscience that they trigger in one man and his young daughter. Max Collins is forty something, with a wife, two kids, a nice big house in the country and a well-paid job. For ten years, he has been working as campaign advisor to a politician, Thom Conran, who is now the independent candidate for Mayor of London. Wisely, Kanan knows not to identify Conran as representing one of the three main parties, Labour, Conservative or Liberal, to avoid taking party political sides. Also by making Conran an independent, Kanan will remind many readers of the charismatic Ken Livingstone, who became London’s current Mayor on an independent ticket.
All along Max Collins has been a team player for Conran and is convinced that his Mayoral campaign will be won only by concentrating on the local question, by pledging to improve London’s ailing public transport, by appealing to the public’s selfishness and promising what it wants. Collins insists they should ignore the burning national issue of the moment, namely new government legislation which prohibits nomadic and homeless persons from occupying private or public land and which has sparked protests and a hunger strike. But his resolve begins to waver when the realities of that very issue turn up on his doorstep. After being repeatedly moved on by the police, a group of wandering gypsies have settled next to his daughter’s school. There’s a word in English that fits Collins; he’s a ‘Nimby’, an acronym for someone who may say they support a certain right or law, but only as long as it never directly confronts and inconveniences them, as long as it is ‘not in my back yard’. When the gypsies are moved on again, they take over part of the land behind his house. Their arrival changes everything.
Max calls the council to have them moved, but they are still there a week later. His daughter Natalie will turn 15 in two weeks, on April 28th - each of the three parts of the book opens with her crossing off the days on her calendar as the big day approaches. Nat befriends Jason, a new gypsy boy at her school, who has been the target of offensive graffiti and bullying, and this sympathy and awareness compound her growing anger about the injustice of the land law and deepens the rift between her and her father. Her disappointment in him climaxes on her birthday, when she runs away from home to London. Kanan has already shown a special affinity for convincing portrayals of disaffected teenagers, in both Lost Girl and his debut series Exit set amongst dreaming school-leavers. Nat returns to the family’s first home and finds, of course, that her treehouse is still unfinished. In almost a summing up of the book’s central theme, Nat talks about her Dad to a neighbour: ‘I think people should keep the promises they make, don’t you? They shouldn’t forget who they were, what was important to them, as if it never mattered.’
Max comes to realize how many promises he has broken: the little white lies, the marital infidelities and temptations, the treehouse he never finished for his daughter, and the bigger betrayal of his political ideals. An argument with Nat over the breakfast table is just the beginning. A sudden epiphany comes to him later that morning when, on his way to work, he is approached for money by homeless people, one of whom is a girl his daughter’s age, so desperate she offers to sell herself for sex, a girl who could have been Natalie. How can he go on ignoring this? As the realization sinks in, Kanan shows him standing alone on a full blank page. Max decides to revisit the college where he once taught Political Sciences. From flashbacks we learn that one of his students was Troy Adams, the activist now starving and shortly after dying for his beliefs, at the very same age that Max gave up teaching to start working for Conran’s campaign. ‘It’s tough to play the angry young man when you’re pushing 32’, but Adams has done it. Kanan crafts a touching portrait of a man who is forced to face the truth about himself, that he has given up what he believed in and settled for comfort and compromise. Kanan questions what anyone believes in, contrasting the gypsy leader, who is happy to promote Rihlan, a mythical homeland of standing stones sought by the gypsies, even though he does not believe in it and has adopted it simply as ‘a good way to stall eviction’. The irony is that Max has seen Rihlan near his home, only once, on an early morning walk. He believes in it.
As we count down the days, first to the death of hunger striker Troy Adams, then to Nat’s birthday, followed by the May Day riots and the May 2nd election, Kanan interweaves the plot threads of Nat’s growing politicization (something, ironically, that Max has always encouraged) and her running away, Max’s realization of his broken promises and betrayed principles, and the mounting protests against the land laws. All of these converge and entangle in a powerful conclusion on the streets of London. When Max finally spots his daughter among the protesters, walking past unaware of him, he doesn’t shout out to her, but smiles with a quiet pride that she is carrying on the ideals he had abandoned. For safety, Max is hustled into a car with Conran and Thorn.
As the crowd turns nasty, however, Max is convinced that their chants of ‘Traitor!’ are calling for him. He deliberately unlocks and opens the car door and allows himself to be pulled out by the protesters and dragged away, with a strangely peaceful expression on his face, like a willing sacrifice. Kanan disrupts the ticking nine-panel grid again here to show Max being kicked, beaten and bloodied. Then order and the grid are restored, and Max seems almost certainly to have been killed. Two panels show riot police first overturning and inspecting his body and then standing back, leaving him lying in a pool of blood. His last words and thoughts are of Rihlan, his dying moments are intercut with blissful images of him walking his dog again through the stone circle, suggesting he has found some peace in the end.
The Birthday Riots rewards being re-read, as it brings out further nuances. For instance, on the second page, I noticed the way Max abruptly, stonefacedly, switches off the TV news report about Adams’ hunger strike, as if he can make the problem go away. Then there’s that slight, fleeting nervousness when he first answers his mobile phone on his early morning walk, worried perhaps in case his former student and mistress might have tracked him down. I appreciated again the way Kanan has positioned the two triptychs at the foot of successive right-hand pages, repeating images of his wife and then of the sexy new PR lady Emma Thorn, both women eyeing him, speaking without words, and him eyeing them back, hypnotized by their gaze, sandwiched in the middle, surrounded and captivated by them.
Stylistically, Kanan has opted for a less ethereal, more solid linework than in Lost Girl or Exit, and this time skilfully shades his images using two mechanical screen tones instead of his previous freehand vertical or horizontal stripes. He breaks periodically out of his nine-panel grid to present silent, evocative landscapes and cityscapes, not just to set the scene, but to make us reflect on who owns or occupies such spaces, these public amenities, private homes and government buildings. There’s an added resonance to the two big trees he shows Max looking out at from the bedroom window, as he gets up bright and early, because later we realize that they have been a constant reminder of the treehouse Max never built. Kanan is spot on with his dialogue, recording the pauses, hesitancy and individuality of natural speech, allied with perceptive physical interaction and wiith telling facial expressions, albeit usually unmelodramatic and understated. Above all, The Birthday Riots proves Kanan’s evergrowing mastery of every element of comics’ vocabulary.
Kanan is young and British, lives in Derby in the Midlands, makes his living as a commercial illustrator, plays the guitar badly and does not do interviews. He wants his work to speak for him, and it does, eloquently, in a strong, subtle, singular voice. I had the luck to meet him and get to know him a little this year during his first visit to France’s Angouleme Comics Festival, helping him cope with the culture shock of experiencing comics as a vibrant medium and multi-faceted industry. He impressed me as a thoughtful, sensitive young man, quietly passionate about making comics and telling stories in his own way. I’d always wondered about his name - for one thing, how to pronounce it? (‘na-BEEL ka-NAAN’), and where it came from? He told me that it is Palestinian, from his father’s side. Learning this, I couldn’t help wondering about the deeper meanings that his family background and his own experiences might have provided for this story. And how they might have informed his sympathies for the gypsies’ search for a mythical homeland of their own, and for all of us trying to find somewhere to belong.
In a postscript to this review, yesterday, May 6th, Le Pen may have lost the French election, but he still managed to poll nearly 20 per cent, that’s still a lot of voters. And tragically, Pim Fortuyn has been assassinated, reportedly by a lone gunman.
Posted: February 12, 2006
The original version of this article appeared in 2002 in the pages of The Comics Journal, the essential magazine of comics news, reviews and criticism.