Nick Hayes’ third book changes things up a mite from his previous books (you’ll remember we reviewed both The Rime of the Modern Mariner and Woody Guthrie and the Dustbowl Ballads): for one thing it’s (largely) wordless; for another, it’s Hayes’ least political book (which is possibly surprising given how political his first two books were and the current state of the world – perhaps he thinks we need to take our minds off things for a bit; he may be right). This is a small story, a Black Swan Green rather than a Ghostwritten. It’s the kind of book that will lazily be called a fable – although strictly speaking a fable uses animals to deliver a lesson, and the lessons on offer in Cormorance are both subtle and oblique, and the animals are more peripheral to the narrative. But we’ll get to that.
Presaged by an epigram from Loudon Wainwright III’s “Swimming Song” (anyone who knows and likes Loudon is largely ok with us; the presence of the epigram inclined us to want to like Cormorance), we are then introduced to a narrow faced boy with wavy hair whose mum and dad are in the process of transplanting the family from one home to another. It’s almost his 8th birthday and he places a lot of importance on the imminent celebration (he keeps a line of framed photos on his wall of the previous seven birthdays; we sense an unusual closeness to his mother, a distance from his father). But this birthday will be different (of course). There is a tragedy. In a fit of grieved pique, he tears his mother’s face from every photo, attaches all of the torn shreds to a balloon and lets it go, regretting it almost the instant it drifts away. The balloon passes across the lake at the back of their house before getting caught on a tree on an island, cut off by water. He wants them back but he struggles with his swimming.
Elsewhere a young girl, equally in thrall to her mother/distant from her father, looks to impress by learning to swim, winning awards and hopefully filling some void we all sense in her mother (who maybe parked her own dreams of swimming success after falling in love and having a baby). Again, there is a tragedy – but whereas the wavy haired boy has his birthday ruined, the bespectacled girl loses the opportunity to win her 100m certificate and comes to wonder if all she needs to do to fix her moms is swim 100m wherever she can. It is this hopeful plan that leads our first narrator to meet our second.
Obviously the book is called Cormorance and the world in which each of these two characters moves through is punctuated by the large birds who forever squawk and loom and offer their contribution (we said Cormorance was largely wordless because all of the animals and their respective sounds are given voice throughout). And yet, in spite of the birds, Cormorance resolutely refuses to take flight. The death of a parent is a seismic event and yet the stories told here feel small and also lacking in some brutal veneer of honesty. Nick Hayes’ art, as beautiful as it can be, often works against what he is doing – this is wallpaper guaranteed to engender a slight feeling of ennui. Wordlessness can really work in a graphic novel’s favour because pictograms, especially complex pictograms looking to depict emotional vacillations, demand more from the reader than casual skimming (see Luca Varela’s The Longest Day of the Future for a wordless graphic novel that achieves what it sets out to). Here, though, it often feels like the odd speech bubble would save Hayes seven or eight needless pages. The main issue with Cormorance is that the story isn’t strong enough, the characters not compelling enough, to justify the time that was obviously taken over the art.
Any Cop?: It makes us sad to say it because we’ve liked everything Hayes has done up to this point but this pales in comparison with his previous work.