By Justin Wood
Earlier this year, I took to opportunity to see Martin Scorsese's Silence before it hit its wide release. The film, about a priest secretly infiltrating the Christian-persecuting country of Tokugawa-era Japan and enduring unfathomable torment and hardship for his choice, is, to say the least, an endurance test of misery, a beautiful film but a grueling experience. Dover Comic's new release Little Tulip, is similarly a grueling experience. One perhaps I wasn't properly prepared to pair with the drunk, vocal inauguration night Trump supporters, and a double rum and coke sloshing around in my tired gray matter, but similarly, very beautiful and the product of mature and prolific craftsmen. However, where Silence felt like its parade of cruelty paid off, both philosophically and narratively, the only significant flaw in Little Tulip is when I closed it I couldn't quite claim the same sense of security. Little Tulip is beautiful, but it is also strangely uneven in places, remarkably accomplished but also at risk of letting its viciousness get away from it and leave us wanting for a point.
Little Tulip is the story of Paul, a scrawny tattoo covered artist living in New York in 1970, doing regular work for the NYPD where he has a remarkable ability for police profile sketches. While a series of brutal murder/rapes haunt the city, we look back in Paul's life to his childhood in Soviet Russia where he went from the talented and happy child of an expatriate artist to living a cruel nightmare in Stalin's gulags among rapists, murderers, and pedophiles.
The writing is engaging, its perspective is fearless, and its use of language is poetic and powerful, never encroaching too much on the art's ability to communicate, but also potent in its own gravity. It is an epic tale of hardship. It is also less than 80 pages long. While I don't know how much more rape and murder I could take in one sitting, this brevity actually works somewhat against the sweeping scope of the story. Appropriately pacing out the life in the camp to rich effect, but leaving large gaps in Paul's story that leave us poorer to his journey to the eventual conclusion in 1970, the climax having interesting poetic weight but feeling oddly rushed and anti-climactic. Additionally, the story contains brief interruptions by unexplained supernatural elements that could have been intriguing given proper breathing room, but are so sporadic and inconsistent that it feels more like awkward jerks to the tone. While I can respect the decision to edit tight and responsibly rather than giving in to excess, this story spans decades and the whittled down depth of Paul's “modern day” story leaves it in a state where I wonder if the book would have been stronger with it removed altogether.
Visually, it's stunning. Francois Boucq's linework is deceptively detailed, as his linework is actually decently economical, using compositions that have a theatrical immediacy and a master's attention to detail to suggest realism without having to linger laboriously on unnecessary pen-strokes. The color is bold and natural, beckoning you into the world even in places you'd rather be anywhere else. This is what a great collaboration between an artist and a writer looks like; like voices harmonizing. Neither element takes precedence, and the result is often remarkable. However, the greatest compliment I can give it is, while largely grounded in representations of flesh and blood, there are a few times where the art transcends into storytelling moments that could only be done in the sequential medium and does so to mesmerizing effect.
While I may have sounded overly critical in places, I should note that this book is in most ways utterly above reproach. It is rare on the site to get my hands on a work like this: one created so confidently by veterans of their craft, devoid of crass commercial interest. Despite my detractions, this is a fine work of art and will likely stick with me when looking back 12 months from now. I can't say the work always felt complete or earned all of the streaks of sick it left in my mind, but it stands yet as a striking work of two storytellers exhibiting unquestionable command over this beautiful medium.
Creator: Jerome Charyn and Francois Boucq
Publisher: Dover Press