I’d already decided that Justin Madson‘s Happy Town Tales was going to be the one book I reviewed for the week (based both on its hefty 80-page length and because it consists of three separate stories), but three pages in I fell in love this the book and realized that there would be plenty for me to talk about. I am not familiar with Madson’s other work, but I’ve since been told that his graphic novel Breathers is something I need to pick up.
First in this collection, and comprising the bulk of Happy Town Tales, is “No Girls Allowed.” As I said, this book made a strong impression on me early on. Part of the reason for this is Madson’s gorgeous art. He has a simplified style that doesn’t abandon complex perspective or intricate backgrounds. He seems keenly aware of what in a given scene needs to be to focused upon in detail versus what needs to be simplified down to a gestural line. His figures are subtly elastic, allowing them to better emote through gentle exaggerations. The author’s use of black-spotting is particularly strong as well, though if I have one criticism, it’s that his overall framing is sometimes confusing. It’s not such a problem as to hinder readability, but it is at times distracting.
The other reason that I was so responsive to this book is the quality of writing. “No Girls Allowed;” about revisiting childhood memories in the wake of a suicide; is exceedingly well paced. Madson wisely leaves plenty of space between moments without making the story feel slow. The protagonist is interesting in that he’s not particularly sympathetic. He comes across as a descent-but-self-involved person who can only view a person’s tragedy through his own mirror. I find this sort of complex character so much more interesting than the usual bland everyman or author-surrogate.
“Beach Walk” is a short, thoughtful piece about a relationship. It creates a snapshot of a couple at their most playful and is a perfect respite from the melancholy of “No Girls Allowed” and the grief to come in “World’s Greatest Dad.” The art for this story was similarly strong, with noticeably improved framing and an even more languid, attenuated line-work. It’s a simple back-and-forth, conversation-style story. The author does a good job of defining each character by the actions of the other, and in a larger sense defining the rhythm and flow of their relationship as well.
“World’s Greatest Dad” is the darkest and most surreal story in this collection. It begins like the prologue to an epic; as though the protagonist is the last man standing after an apocalypse. But as the story jumps backwards in time to unfold, we find that the apocalypse in question is one located within a single person’s mind. Instead we have the character study of a broken man; a father who still searches for his kidnapped daughter long after he has given up hope of finding her. It’s a heartbreaking portrait, and the way Madson pretends to build to a massive crescendo only to retreat to the smallest, most personal space imaginable magnifies the isolation of the father.
“World’s Greatest Dad” is not without flaw, however, and it relates to the title itself. The story gets its title from an incident in the father’s past, and it’s one that, without giving anything away, skirts the line between poignant and corny. It provides much of the character’s motivation, and as such comes off as a little too on the nose. But this is easy enough to overlook, as Madson is skilled enough to keep the story from running off the emotional rails that he’s laid down for it.
So there it is. Only a month into the new year and already I have something I’ll be recommending to anyone who’ll listen, until I’m blue in the face. Check out more from Justin Madson at www.justmadbooks.com