By Ben Boruff
In a time of social media grandstanding and generally hollow conversations about urgent topics, perhaps a silent story is the best way to discuss concepts like racial prejudice. Josephine, a 132-page black-and-white graphic novel, is Kevin Sacco’s semi-autobiographical account of life in Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the 1960s, and it addresses issues like inequality and materialism with a style that is both delicate and direct.
Presented as a flashback, the story centers on a young boy's interactions with his caretaker. The story is simple, but each panel is rich, offering subtle characterization and nuanced emotions. The absence of dialogue forces readers to stare at the characters and interpret their faces, and this experience is both rewarding and unnerving. Readers are not able to hide behind white bubbles. Nor should they. The novel—more Songs of Innocence and less Songs of Experience—spends more time cherishing hope than pointing fingers. That said, some of the disparaging worldviews that exist in Josephine's 1960s New York are still widespread today, and that fact should upset all readers.
Sacco's artwork lifts the heavy burden of this narrative with the practiced strength of someone who has lived these moments. The artwork is grainy, like an unfinished sketch—and it matches the narrative perfectly. In his 2012 TED Talk, graphic designer Chip Kidd described the process that led him to create the original cover of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park: "I just started to reconstitute the dinosaur. I had no idea what I was doing, I had no idea where I was going, but at some point, I stopped—when to keep going would seem like I was going too far. And what I ended up with was a graphic representation of us seeing this animal coming into being. We're in the middle of the process." The art of Josephine depicts a New York City—and, by extension, a United States—that is in the middle of its process. It is unfinished. It is working toward something. Arguably (and hopefully), today's America is unfinished, always trudging toward better realities, so Josephine's scratchy artwork is simultaneously a dreamlike memory of a past time and a mirror image of modern failings.
I like to listen to (thoughtfully curated) instrumental music when I read comics, and Thomas Newman's original score for Sam Mendes's 1999 film American Beauty kept me company as I flipped through the pages of Josephine. In many ways, Newman's score is an ill-fitting companion for a novel about inner-city struggles and socioeconomic divides, but songs like "American Beauty," "Angela Undress," and "Any Other Name" capture the melancholy and fragile hope of Kevin Sacco's story. Josephine is about innocence and loss, and the gentle, haunting piano riffs of Newman's composition match these themes.
Whether you read it with Newman's music or not, remember to read Josephine with a compassionate and attentive eye. Look at the faces. See the feelings. And before you open your mouth or your laptop to discuss the novel, sit for a moment in silence and consider the story.
Writer/Artist: Kevin Sacco
Publisher: SLG Publishing