Every once in a while, a new graphic novel comes along, and everyone trips over themselves to declare that “comics can be art.” This isn’t a statement I disagree with, though there is another conversation to be had as to whether or not traditional comics (read: superhero comics) can be art; Fabio Moon and Gabriel Bá’s new graphic novel, Two Brothers, is one such piece, transcending the baggage that comes with the medium to tell a very affecting, very human story. In the tradition of many South American novelists, this is a book that tells the story of one family for several generations, and uses it to examine the culture at large without losing the emotional core--a “perfect” family that starts to rip at the seams until it finally comes entirely unraveled. Using the twins as examples of a perfect citizen--Yaqub--and the most base example of civilized people--Omar--Moon and Bá have taken the source novel by Milton Hatoum and exploded it into a visceral, black-and-white journey through the heartbreak of a family and the heartbreak of losing your home.
The book struck me on several levels, feeling like one part Essex County, one-part Love in the Time of Cholera, one small part White Teeth, and one part, of course, Daytripper. The book is narrated by the bastard son of one of the titular twins, as he watches his grandparents’ marriage fall apart, and he observes the vicious games of his father and his uncle. The reader is given a window into the entire affair from a narrator who is an outside part of the action, stepping in when he must to protect the people he must; where the twins are metaphorical opposites, one very controlled and calculating, one ruled by his wildest impulses, the narrator survives by synthesizing the best of each brother--smart, but willing to fight for his family.
Moon and Bá have never been stronger as writers. For as gorgeous as Daytripper was, once you figured out the hook, it runs the risk of getting repetitive; you know what will happen at the end of each issue, and the fun is in the journey. Two Brothers is challenging in the best sense of the word--as they introduce new characters, you’re left to your own devices to figure out who they are and what they are going to mean to the story and to the family; the plot meanders and twists and turns, with the tension in the family dynamics twisting and twisting until the pressure becomes to great and they explode. This is a story that you will want to read again once you finish it, knowing what you know now, knowing that that will change the way you read the earliest chapters.
One of the great challenges in adapting a novel to a comic is the translation of what the novelist can use to create the inner life of a character--if you want to stop the action for a moment and let a character reminisce or philosophize, the intricacy of the language can pull the reader along. In a graphic medium, the visuals have to remain strong, and if possible, they have to convey the same things without words. Moon and Bá know this family intimately, and their use of close ups and reaction shots is at such a masterful level throughout the book that it leaves you feeling like you read a 600-page novel, not a 230-page comic. They don’t sacrifice any of the meat of the story for expediency, and they still propel you along with each scene, with each panel.
The impressive part of Moon and Bá as a team is that when they set their minds to it, in a setting like Two Brothers or Daytripper, you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. Rather than two people trying to fit their styles together with edges that don’t quite match, they become one supreme artist, whose style is consistent throughout, and impressive on every page. I certainly miss the gorgeous colors from Daytripper, but this story is not one with the hopeful aspect of that book. This book does not have a happy ending, and it is about stark blacks and whites, about opposites, about civilization and wildness and the grey area where those two meet. Their loving black and white renderings of a small Brazilian port town as it outgrows the fence it has built for itself is arresting, the whole book has a starkness to it that I haven’t seen in their work since Pixu, and it is the better for it--the story is so complex, with so many layers of meaning, so many aspects of this family from which it comes at them to unravel them, that putting it in black and white lets the story shine through.
If you’re not a fan of Moon and Bá, this is a good place to start. They are clearly at the height of their powers, proving once again that when they illustrate Casanova or Umbrella Academy, it’s because they appreciate the stories of others, not because they don’t have their own storytelling in them. These two are not just national treasure of Brazil, but treasures to the worldwide comics community, and this novel could very well supplant Daytripper as their magnum opus. While superhero comics are clearly art, when people say “this book reminds me that comics can be art,” what they mean is, “this book is transcendent in a way that only the finest pieces of art are.”
Buy this book immediately, brew yourself some black coffee, and read the whole thing in a sitting. The tragedy must be taken as a whole, for the last glimmer of hope to really shine through.
Two Brothers Writers: Gabriel Bá, Fabio Moon, inspired by Milton Hatoum Artists: Gabriel Bá, Fabio Moon Publisher: Dark Horse Comics Price: $24.99 Release Date: 10/14/15 Format: Hardcover; Print/Digital