‘Works best when it gets inside its character’s heads’ – Behind the Curtain by Danusia Schejbal and Andrzej Klimowski

btcGraphic novels have always closely associated with the memoir, from A Contract with God, through Maus, In the Shadow of No Towers, American Splendor, through to Persepolis and Hyperbole and a Half; the graphic memoir is a staple of comics history. Harvey Pekar, the writer of American Splendor, articulated the reason behind this perhaps the best when he said that, “There’s no limitation on comics, nothing. From a logical standpoint, how can there be a limitation on comics?” Comics and graphic novels allow a writer and artist to interrogate their experiences through much heavier metaphor than perhaps a traditional prose narrative would allow. Maus allowed Art Spiegelman to anthropomorphise his characters, and to break the fourth wall. Graphic novel memoirs are a tradition of the form, and quite rightly so.

That brings us to Behind the Curtain, by Danusia Schejbal and Andrzej Klimowski. Taking its cue from books like Persepolis, and Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s Our Cancer Year this is a book which works best when it gets inside its character’s heads. That task is made easier by the fact that both Schejbal and Klimowski write and draw sections of the book, the narrative weaving between their stories. A couple who move to Poland during the 1970s to become art students, the duo’s shared experiences, as well as their parent’s involvement in the wartime uprising, become the focus of this story which paints a fascinating picture of the period.

Schejbal and Klimowski’s art styles are quite closely related, although different enough that the change in perspective is easy to notice. Klimowski opts for a Lowry-esque industrial approach to his panels, with dour figures huddling themselves into trenchcoats, and only small splashes of colour to give a hint of something beautiful behind the drab buildings of Warsaw. Schejbal has a similar style, although her characters are softer in their rendering, scratched pencils make her side of the story feel more like an immediate memory of events, and the reader is drawn in all the more.

The writing, especially the dialogue, often has a tough job to do, exposition about the period is kept to a minimum which can sometimes be to its detriment (without a grounded knowledge of the time, you might find yourself a little lost) although this isn’t as big a deal as it might first seem. It becomes quite clear that whilst Klimowski and Schejbal want to talk about their experiences in Poland at this time, it is not a book about that period in history; rather it is a story about the relationship between the two of them. The stories about their parents, working for the resistance movement during the Polish uprising are especially interesting; particularly for Klimowski, who appears to be haunted by his father’s experiences throughout the book. Those odd, haunting moments, permeate the book and constantly remind the reader what the city has been through. The ghost of the past is never far behind in this book, and it is this, rather than long passages of historical exposition, which help ground the story.

Any Cop?: In short, yes. This is not only a uniquely produced graphic novel, but a compelling read. Highly recommended.

Daniel Carpenter


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