Chris W Kim’s debut graphic novel, Herman by Trade, comes to us via Self Made Hero, the publishers of literary adaptations (they’ve had a go at everything from Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita to Conan-Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, and lots of others besides), literary biographies (Picasso, Johnny Cash, Freud, and again countless others besides) and what can only be described as out and out oddities – we’re thinking The Can Opener’s Daughter, Stardust Nation, The Good Inn, again… amongst others. Herman by Trade is very much in the latter camp.
We find ourselves in a city of skyscrapers by the sea. Ships and ducks compete for space on the water; long nosed men walk their dogs on the promenade; a shadowy figure in a white cape passes by. The following morning a young man (Herman) drives by in a small one man vehicle with a flashing light. He collects rubbish. As he works, he spies a line – a long line of people queuing up to watch a remastered version of an old film (Herman has never heard of it). Intrigued, he goes home, cooks, reads, jumps skip rope, watches a bit of TV… and then changes his entire being. Suitably transformed, he takes to the streets and goes to see the movie. Gare by Mio. The crowd are in raptures. And then Mio is there in person to announce (Willy Wonka like) that she will be filming her new film…right there, on the promenade. There will be open auditions. The crowd goes wild.
Herman rings in sick and joins the queue. Imagine Britain’s Got Talent shot by Godard (think: Weekend). There are all manner of cuckoos and crazies, dancers and singers and jugglers and clowns and marching bands and, of course, Herman, the man who can change his face and his body into pretty much whatever he likes. Mio takes to Herman straight away but can’t quite figure out how to use him. When filming begins, she uses him to act as the transformative transition between acts, seguing from one person and one act into another. In time, Mio feels she can dispense with all of the other acts altogether and films Herman as he transforms and transforms and transforms, over and over again (we imagine the eventual film to be one unbroken shot, a la Sokurov’s Russian Ark. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it all prove too much; perhaps unsurprisingly the snubbed crowd of would-be artistes reject the new film en masse.
Kim, we sense, is a clever chap, and in his transformative Herman we know we can see points being made about the faces we put on as we go about our days, and the role of art and artists in society and even quite possibly something about the ways in which high art doesn’t tend to be the flavour of the month with the proles. Herman by Trade is a thoughtful book. A clever book. A book with things to say. It isn’t entirely a fun book and it isn’t entirely a funny book either (although we sense it tries to be funny at times), but that is ok. An austere book (you can see the lack of colour in the images we’ve shared) for our austere times is forgivable. More than anything else, we think Herman by Trade is a debut and it is a debut that piques interest, that says here I am, I am a little bit different. And difference is good.
Any Cop?: Like many Self Made Hero graphic novels it may not be to everyone’s taste but those people who like this will like it a whole lot.