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American Widow
posted October 27, 2008
 

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Creators: Alissa Torres, Sungyoon Choi
Publishing Information: Villard Books, hardcover, 224 pages, September 2008, $22
Ordering Numbers: 9780345500694 (ISBN13)

It saddens me to say that American Widow is an awful comic, because I wanted very much to like it. I think many people will. Alissa Torres' story can be touching, she's dealing with an element of recent US history that's still largely unexplored in comparison to the appetite for that material, and there are several instances in the unfolding of this 200-plus page comic book hardcover where she offers a compelling perspective on what happened to her after her husband died on 9/11. There's a good, maybe even very good comic in there somewhere, although it's hard to say why this had to be a comic in the first place. The American Widow that exists in my head would share some of the brutal, banal details that Torres brings forward, would put on display some of the smaller humiliations and unexpected acts of kindnesses she experiences, and then filter would both through a swirl of emotions she negotiates, a fascinating set of conflicts that only rarely rustles to the surface in the book that was made. The book dithers. Instead of clarity or a compelling narrative built from the failure to reach clarity, readers must sort through an inchoate sprawl with little sense of pacing or forward momentum. We have to be told and provided context for nearly everything when simply showing something might have been more powerful. There are as many pages that veer into maudlin digression as there are moments that seem uniquely relevant. It's a story that could have used a great deal of editing for consistency and to ensure a greater overall impact. I suspect it uses the current novelty of the comic book form in wider circles as a cover for sins it never would have been allowed in prose, on stage, or as a script.

Step one in an editing process would have been assigning a different artist. The visual choices made by Sungyoon Choi are unnervingly amateurish, of such a poor quality across the board it's hard to grasp onto specific things through which to build criticism. The execution of the nearly always-obvious ideas (a bird as a sign of renewal; cartoon anger shown in upturned tie) isn't compelling enough in terms of how they add context or underscore an emotion or feeling to any individual scene to make up for their cliched nature. Too many of the scenes are played against generic backgrounds that feel light on detail not as an artistic choice but as a survival technique for an artist facing a giant book. Those spare backdrops put too great a focus on Choi's crudely-drawn and inexpressive figures. Visual interest is sustained during talking scenes by whipping the reader's perspective around in a way that highlights rather than plays against these encounter's essential dullness. I had a hard time figuring out distance and the relative size of things on some of the pages, and could barely read five pages before discovering another panel where my eye was stopped dead by an element of the shading used. It pains me to see a perhaps young and definitely not-yet-ready artist receive an assignment where delicacy and a greater command of cartooning essentials and subtleties could have resulted in a much better book.

American Widow chose to be a comic book rather than demanded to be one by virtue, say, of its author being a cartoonist to whom this unique experience happened. Once that choice was made, it needed to be an excellent one. This isn't close.