This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on July 14, 2014 as the first part of a 12 part series.
Welcome to Comics Bulletin’s team review of Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá’s Daytripper. This is the first part of an ambitious twelve-part series of articles on this powerful and much-loved series, which was published in the U.S. by Vertigo. Articles will run pretty much every day through July 28th, though we’ll take a few days off for weekends. As you can see, we’ve assembled an all-star group of Comics Bulletin writers for this series: Daniel Elkin, Chase Magnett, Paul Brian McCoy, Jason Sacks and Keith Silva. Each of our esteemed writers will be analyzing one chapter at a time from this series, with each chapter hand-chosen by the writer, and will be collaborating on “bookend” articles at the beginning and end of this series.
We hope you enjoy this series as much as we enjoy writing it. Please tweet, facebook, share and comment if you’re moved by what we write.
Jason Sacks: Sometimes daily life is predictable. We go to school or work each day; we maybe eat a nice lunch, see some friends, get out every now and then, live our very ordinary lives.
But existence is also unpredictable. Small things happen that can change everything dramatically, alter our perceptions or our relationships, end or begin a life, show us a miracle or make us appreciate the love of a friend or illuminate the love of family that can help make the everyday worth living.
With Daytripper Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá deliver a graphic novel that asks readers to consider “what if”, to wonder how we would be thought of if things suddenly changed in our lives. If we were to suddenly die, what would our obit say? Who would remember us and how would we be considered? Would we have lived with grace and happiness or full of pain and stress?
This astonishing book tells the story of Brás de Oliva Domingos in small fragments and at different ages In one chapter he’s an 11-year-old child on an idyllic summer afternoon at a family member’s farm; in another he’s 41 and dealing with the simultaneous death of his father (a nationally famous author) and the birth of his child; in another, he’s 47 and is defined mainly by his absence.
Though this book lacks action, it has plenty of suspense and a tremendous amount of tension. Life is complex and difficult but it’s also worth celebrating, and Moon and Bá (along with brilliant colorist Dave Stewart) deliver a book that celebrates our unique experiences, that suffuses the experiences of everyday living with a visionary beauty that reminds us of the importance of finding joy in the commonplace while reminding us that even the commonplace can be extraordinary.
Gentlemen, I’m excited to be writing about this series with such a smart and thoughtful group of friends. On the whole, what did Daytripper mean to you?
Chase Magnett: When I first read Daytripper, I was on a spring break trip to the East Coast. not even old enough to legally drink. Coming back to it now, I’m surprised at both how personal the reading experience remains and how much my perspective on many chapters is. This continuing relevancy combined with new interpretations speaks to the book’s flexibility and the genius of its framing.
Although the ten chapters combine to provide a coherent narrative of Brás’ life, they also function independently as reflections on a specific period or aspect of life. Ranging from friendship to romance, being a child to being a parent, failure to success, every chapter focuses around a very specific and complex theme. It is the complexity of these ideas that allow Daytripper to hold a wide array of meanings for readers.
Chapter 3 deals largely with the idea of finding love, revolving around a fierce breakup and Brás’s recovery to find someone new. When I first read Daytripper in college, it was less than a month after the end of my first long-term relationship. I related to the book through Brás pain and anger, feeling it as my own. Now I read it through the lense of someone who made it past that period and is now happily cohabitating in a much more productive relationship. My focus has shifted from the breakup that begins the chapter to Brás recovery and the promise he sees is someone else’s eyes at the end.
Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá’s comic has not changed since its initial publication in 2010, but its readership certainly has. Its greatest strength is that the story evolves with the needs and understanding of its audience. The chapter about romantic relationships will look vastly different to someone in their first romance, someone looking forward to marriage, and someone living in a successful marriage with children. Yet it has something to say to all of these people, whether it is a message of hope or one of difficult lessons learned.
The diversity of its themes, and the subsequent diversity of how they may be understood by readers is a truly incredible thing. Brás is every bit as much a cypher as he is a character in his own right. He provides us with a person to project ourselves onto in order to understand the many facets that compose a human life, in addition to being a well-defined character in his own right. And just as Brás grows throughout the story, so do those of us reading Daytripper.
Keith Silva: Daytripper is one of the select handful (armful?) of books I would bring with me to that proverbial desert island. In fact, if pressed and if I had to choose only one comic — The horror! The horror! — Daytripper would be on the shortest of short lists. If adrift and alone in some paradisal hellscape I would want to while away my infinities with what I consider to be the most human stories I’ve ever experienced. For its intelligence, emotion, beauty, mutability and love, Daytripper is damn near sentient.
As I began to approach this project, pressed for time and casting about for inspiration, I reread Craig Thompson’s introductory illustration and thought: “who can say better than that?” Thompson wastes neither time nor space as he locates Daytripper at the center point, the omphalos, the Mason/Dixon of the comics medium: fantasy vs. realism. He’s right, of course. In doing so, Thompson gives this geographical location a very romantic turn, he says, “Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon dance between both, infusing reality with the sacred” — the sense, the idea, that fantasy and dreams approach ‘the sacred?’ … genius. Now who’s the romantic?
I’m burying the lead: Daytripper is beautiful to look at. That’s not opinion or emotion, that’s science. Each panel and page is a sublime construction of cartooning; its naturalism and effortless appearance are illusions to the determinism of life, the hard stuff required (demanded) by such flawless creation.
For all its big questions and bigger emotions, deep meanings and deeper resonances, Bá, Moon, Stewart and letterer Sean Konor tether the reader to reality, to place. The specificity of Daytripper, its exocticness, its dreaminess, its Brazilian-ness all translate into something achingly familiar, local and human. The Theatro Municipal of São Paulo and Rio Vermelho feel as real to me as stately Wayne manor or Wakanda, only more so, because of the balance Daytripper strikes between reality and the dream, that’s comics, the suspension of dis-belief, the reality within dream and the dream within the reality.
Daytripper does not lack for action, Jason, no more than the small victories and continual setbacks of life itself. True, few of us find ourselves able to leap tall buildings in a single bound or have the physical attributes to pull off (on?) leather or spandex, c’est la vie. And Chase, Daytripper doesn’t change, it’s like a physical law, like gravity, mercurial, but constant, it’s the genetics of all great works of art. Change is the purview of the reader. And so it goes …
Instead of taking the easy way out by asking the reader to choose sides — team-realism or team-fantasy — Bá and Moon remix the binary of reality and the dream to create art, a living expression of the sacred and beautiful irony that death is a part of life. Daytripper is an affirmation it’s not either/or, it’s both.
Paul Brian McCoy: I’m going to be the odd man out here, it seems, because while I agree that the themes are brilliant and the artwork is simply spectacular, by the time I got to the tenth issue I was bored by the whole piece. The conceit of ending each chapter with Bras’ death and summing up his life to that point with the obituary became a distraction for me, pulling me out of the stories and clubbing me over the head with what is actually a very simple, if sublime, point about living one’s life to the fullest.
But with that said, each chapter is a beautiful piece of work in itself. Bá and Moon, along with the stunning color work by Dave Stewart, have crafted a piece that I could sit and stare at all day long. Keith, you’re exactly on point with your description of how the dreamlike quality of the work balances delicately with realistic believability. By the time the series actually moves more fully into Bras’ dreams, it feels earned and allows the series to really bring everything home successfully in those final two chapters.
I felt that the story itself ran about four or five chapters too long. Although if a couple of the later chapters had come earlier in the mix, I may have felt differently. Ultimately, I didn’t care for Bras as a character. He was bland and self-involved – which I know is exacerbated by the creative conceit of the work overall – and I just didn’t care about his little triumphs and failures. As an everyman, he pushed me away, and in the end I didn’t really like him very much despite his attempts to do the right things here and there throughout his life.
Each chapter gave such an insightful glimpse into his life without expending a lot of excessive (or noticeable, anyway) effort that I regretted not getting that artistic approach spread around to other characters. The hints of Magical Realism that Bá and Moon try to pepper throughout the story fell flat for me, and instead of opening up the sense of wonder and the sublime, it ended up making me feel as though I were being lectured to by Richard Bach rather than enlightened by Gabriel García Márquez.
I mean, I loved Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Illusions back when I was twenty, but rereading them now as a forty-six year-old is grating and tedious. Unfortunately, the tediousness is the big takeaway for me with Daytripper. It was just too inwardly focused on one individual’s experience of life, despite all the different permutations and changes, to keep me interested for ten nearly identically paced and presented issues.
The singular focus on Bras also forces the work to see the other characters solely through his eyes, or when it does shift the narrative perspective slightly it is still colored by Bras influence, which doesn’t fare well for really any of the supporting characters. But the women suffer in particular; any one of whom would be a far more interesting subject for this sort of in-depth exploration of life, death, family, and meaning.
Daniel Elkin: The “tediousness” to which you refer, McCoy, perhaps goes more to the point that both Magnett and Silva have brought up, the idea that a successful work of art “reads” its audience as much as its audience “reads” the work. We bring our own narrative and the sum of our experiences to our apperception of something as brave and audacious as Daytripper. We understand it as we understand ourselves. What we find therein speaks as much to who we are as a person, as it does the work itself.
What Bá and Moon have created is, in fact, the story of ourselves, insomuch as it is the story of experiences. As much as we might try to deny it, life is a series of cause and effects.
Trace back how you ended up where you have in your life. Follow the decision making process, as it were. Something along the lines of, “I’m here because I decided this based on this, which choice presented itself because of this, which was a result of this, which was proceeded by this, which came about due to this, etc, etc…” as far back as you can go. If you’re honest with yourself, you not only have a better sense of who you are and where you’ve come from, but, more importantly, the study, in a way, forces you to take ownership of your present.
Unfortunately, we take each of the decisions we make in our day-to-day rather lightly. Upon examination, though, they gain gravitas. But as we have little time in our scurry we have less for reflection. The last choice, then, becomes defining. Yes, Silva, death IS a part of life. It, in this case, provides the final punctuation to our story. Is it an exclamation point? A period? A question mark? Or an ellipse?
This is where Daytripper, for me, straps on its profundity — it parses the punctuation and, by doing so, assays the life led. Bá and Moon force us, through their art, to consider the sagaciousness of the moments that encompass our lives.
Like you said, Sacks, life is “worth celebrating” — birthdays, anniversaries, new relationships, larger moments of joy — all of these draw our attention to the outcome, we extol in the accomplishment. What reading Daytripper does for me, though, is remind me that these moments are results, not ends in themselves, and that the commonplace is what makes up the man. Anything capable of this is, in some form, a work of art in my mathematics, and so, for me, the formula stands: Daytripper = Art
Sacks: Yes, Daniel, the decisions we make day-to-day are taken very lightly. The decision to go to a ceremony for your famous father; the decision to swim out to a bobbing harborside boat; the choice to not speak to a gorgeous woman at a convenience store: all are minor events in some way but are also as important as life and death.
I understand the frustration you feel at the conceit of each chapter ending in a death, Paul, but to me that’s one of the central themes of this luminous book: the events that change our life, that kill the old us and birth the new us, are the ones that on some level are the simplest. There are many moments when we feel the weight of transition in our lives – the death of a parent and the birth of a child, to name two – but there are just as many moments that seem trivial in the moment but that end up being momentous. Even the little incidents can be life and death experiences. They can change our life.
One aspect of this book that I notice when leafing through it is the power of the eyes. Eye contact is very important in this book as the communication of soulful meaning. Note the way that Olinda looks us in the eye at the beginning of chapter 3, “28”, and how much meaning and pain there is in that look – and how both vital and painful that look is to the way that we understand her perception of the world. Or the way that the children communicate silently to each other in chapter five, “11”, and how those eyes convey a connection that can only be communicated in ways that young people can communicate.
Then notice the eyes of Benedito, always staring off into space, so often seeming involved more in their world than in the world of his family and friends. Perhaps this is a sign that the book is being written from Brás’s standpoint, where we see the world indirectly from his eyes and his father as a distant, somewhat unknowable force of literary meaning and power in his life. He certainly seems to see his father as as much as relic of his possessions as anything else – a fascinating juxtaposition for a book that is so much about connections.
Since I’ll be writing about this in my piece about chapter one (spoiler!), I won’t dwell on this point here, but let me ask you, my friends in journeys to wonderful realms: Does it feel like there’s a small gap at the center of this book in the form of Brás? Does it seem like Brás, our protagonist, isn’t quite sure himself who he is and what he wants to become (at least until the final chapter, of course)? For any of us who feel stuck in our own heads in our 40s, or even in our 20s, can we relate to this feeling of a desperate need for intimacy in his life — something more than a young man’s yearning for love but rather the story of a slightly broken man trying to find meaning in his life?
And in that quest for meaning, do we find empathy, meaning, and yes, even a little bit of love for our ever-questing Brás?
Magnett: In presenting (most of) the story from Brás’ point of view, Moon and Bá do allow their central character to become a cipher. This is not because Brás is without motivation or desires, but because he is the one tasked with conveying them. At any given point, he is sure of who his father, his wife, his son, or his best friend are in relation to him. They bring definition to his life and he focuses on each of their relationships in one or more chapters. The one person he has the most trouble defining is himself.
This makes a lot of sense to me, as the act of defining one’s self is a difficult at best. If you think about the person you were in ten, five, or even one year increments the answer can change dramatically. A new love, job, or child can dramatically alter the way in which we view the world and ourselves. We are not allowed to see Brás gradually evolve, but are re-introduced to him at those all-important minor moments that you mentioned, Jason. Each of these moments is selected because of the transformative power it holds. Thinking about all of this, Daytripper is really a story of becoming.
Each chapter acts as something of an act break in Brás’ life, altering what he wants or how he views himself. The end result is a story that can be approached from two levels. On one level we have a collection of vignettes, each exploring a very specific theme. Taken as a whole these short stories can be assembled to create a coherent life story. The latter version is less coherent because it creates large gaps for readers to fill in and recreate, specifically since the ending of each previous chapter must be false in order for the next to exist. It’s easy to lose track of Brás life story between his constant developments, but these flashpoints of change are what allow us to relate to him.
This is why I look forward to seeing our collected essays focusing on each chapter individually. Brás is most alive and recognizable in specific moments. As readers we empathize with the experience of a traumatic breakup, falling in love, or having a child. We are capable of projecting onto Brás at these precise moments when he is able to clearly define himself. That relates directly to the structure of ending each chapter with an obituary. An obituary is tasked with clarifying a life in very few words. At each of these moments, Brás and those of us who have shared in these experiences are able to clearly define who we are. Daytripper is about the precious moments when the process of becoming allows us to become something new.
Silva: It’s personal. All of it.
Brás is a Portuguese name (a form of the French Blaise). It translates as ‘speaks with a lisp.’ Brás possesses an acute unremarkableness, a blandness. He’s a wet sandwich. Brás hesitates, stutters. Writ large (plot-wise) he’s always having to start over, to try again. Perhaps, McCoy, you’re on to something.
Magnett’s use of the word ‘cypher’ to describe Brás is spot on. Not to equivocate (too much), but I might choose the word ‘abstraction’ to describe Daytripper’s protagonist. Adjectives aside, Brás isn’t a hero. He’s hard to like, self-centered and at times very selfish. He earns few points (with me) when he’s playing the put-upon-son-of-the-famous-father or the absentee-Dad. Sympathize with Brás, no. Empathize, yes. He’s human, to a fault.
A cypher (or cipher) is a zero, a non-entity, a nobody, a blank slate. Couple this with Elkin’s idea of the how ‘successful art’ reads the reader and Brás becomes a bit of (binary) code, something that can only be defined and understood by the reader. Daytripper traffics in life and death, fate and choice, those joined pairs — those twins — that make up the ones and zeroes of the narrative. The results, the forks in the road taken and not taken, the trail of breadcrumbs that lead back to those decisions only provide the directions, the map. Who makes the decisions and why? At the center of this question is Brás, the blank slate, the blank page.
One way to read Daytripper is as the act of writing, how a writer engages with the abstraction of the capital ‘B’ capital ‘P’ Blank Page. Sure, it’s a convenient metaphor/analogy and yes, it’s heavy-handed and (O.K.) a skosh idealistic, but it’s viable and (I think) sustainable. As writers (so-called) the five of us all have to engage, battle, cajole and romance the blank page. We create something on top of nothing, making our marks which is, after all, what comics is all about, mark-making. A lot like life, no?
Several years ago I was running camera on an interview with an author, Fred Chiaventone. He’d written a book, A Road We Do Not Know: A Novel of Custer at Little Big Horn, his first and (so far) his only novel. The host asked him about the title, where it came from and what it meant. I’ve never read the book, but I’ve never forgotten Chiaventone’s answer. The title, he said, was from a Native American phrase — in my memory it’s some bit of Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull wisdom — about how each and every day is ‘a road we do not know.’ It’s personal.
To me, that’s Brás, that’s life and his (only?) purpose in this story, to function as an abstraction, an agent for discussions about life, death, choice and all the rest.
Let’s find out where this road goes.
Paul: And therein lies the problem.
When a work relies or depends on the reader to bring their own experience to fill in the gaps on the page, especially when we’re discussing a work that goes out of its way to make philosophical points that are reiterated with each concurrent chapter – despite the fact that key elements in the characters’ emotional growth aren’t actually carried over narratively from chapter to chapter – then the work itself is flawed. Perhaps not fatally, but it is, at times, playing the reader like a mark, using beautifully sublime moments to mask a somewhat simplistic philosophical appeal.
This is a work designed almost exclusively for the Reader Response criticism that makes up most comics criticism. That’s almost the only response it has gotten from most quarters – and here already. Daytripper uses narrative shorthand to craft emotional responses that resonate with its target audience, educated male writers (and would-be-writers) with father issues, without doing any of the heavy-lifting character work that a stronger narrative would provide. Critically, when we fall back on describing how the work made us feel, we shift the attention to us rather than keeping it focused on the work, and then we gloss over structural issues as minor elements because the comic gave us the warm gushies inside.
I mean, how can we take anything in Brás’ father’s letter seriously in Chapter 10, when he so obviously didn’t stop living for himself and giving up his life for his son? The entire nine chapters previous are all about the absent father and the repercussions of living in the shadow of his father’s fame. Taken as a stand-alone chapter, it’s almost insidious in its attempt to gouge those emotional markers that made, and still make, Field of Dreams a favorite film of grown-up boys who miss their daddies. But given everything that’s come before, it’s impossible to see it as anything but a father’s desperate attempt to rewrite himself in his son’s eyes.
This circles back to what you’ve written Keith, that Daytripper may mainly be about the act of writing itself. I think that may be the most valuable way to approach the text, now that you’ve thrown the idea out there. Given that the obituaries are obviously the central metaphor of the work and every chapter is about how our lives are summed up once we’re done (pure Sartre, there, by the way), perhaps we should give more attention to the way the story is constructed as a whole.
For example, how can we see the dream sequence that makes up Chapter 9 as magical or insightful, when we’ve already seen all of those images and mysteries played out? Instead of being a mystical exploration of self and a prophetic vision, it’s just a dream – regurgitating images we’ve already seen play out. However, this exact same material, if presented earlier in the work, maybe after two or three chapters, when the death/obituary conceit has been established, would open up the work to interpretation and magic, while also loosening up the lockstep structural approach Moon and Bá tied themselves to.
Unfortunately I find myself realizing with each new look at the work, that however the chapters may have been organized, if the words were removed, all of my problems with the text go away. So if it’s about writing ourselves into existence, it ultimately fails for me. I’m disappointed by the fact that the emphasis Daytripper puts on the words we use to define ourselves, undermines the way they present the emotional beauty of everyday life.
Elkin: Point well taken, McCoy. You’ve made me think here.
As writers, we inhabit a world of words. What are words except a desire to express experience? Certainly they limit, cage, and oftentimes distract from intent, but deep rooted in their purpose is the desire to connect. When we communicate, we share ourselves — our needs, our joys, our sorrows, our isolation — only to connect. Words, McCoy, are our bridge between that which is locked inside of us and the world that surrounds us.
Certainly there are other forms of communication: art, dance, music, even the simplest touch, but it is through words that we grasp for specificity, minutiae, logic, reason. Words define, encapsulate, and, yes, McCoy, sometimes, tragically, undermine.
Luckily, comics function in the intersection between words and pictures. In the best comics, these two function harmoniously in order to access both the visceral and the intellectual in a manner no other medium can. Comics demand of the audience uniquely, and thus, back to my original statements about the work reading the reader as much as the reader reads the work.
Moon and Bá work their wonder twin powers in Daytripper, using both the drawing and the writing to communicate.
And, I think, to connect.
Sacks mentions the eyes. Magnett mentions transformative power. Silva mentions an agent for discussions. All these words, these ideas, they point to something earnest, deep-seated, fervent, and profound. Daytripper has brought this out in us. Therein lies its worth.
Earlier, Silva referred tangentially to Robert Frost’s classic, ubiquitous, horrifically commercialized and “memed” poem “The Road Not Taken”. Though Facebook and advertising copywriters want us to see this as a poem celebrating original thinking, for me, I’ve always read this poem as one of regret:
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
Is it not with a “sigh” that he tells us this story? Who would the narrator be had he chosen the other road? Did his life amount to less than he had imagined? What possibilities would have arisen from another decision? What is regret other than an expression of discontent and a longing for having made a different choice?
And that made all the difference.
This is the fecund and philosophical realm of Daytripper. Through Bá and Moon’s craft, we get to explore the idea of choice. Yes, Magnett, Brás IS our cypher regardless of any distractions the work itself presents. It’s not just a question of how his stories make us feel, it is how his stories make us think.
Now, like Silva admonished above, “LET’S WRITE.”
Paul Brian McCoy is the Editor-in-Chief of Psycho Drive-In and writer of Mondo Marvel . His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK , along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK ). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy .
Jason Sacks is the Publisher of Comics Bulletin as well as the co-author of several books about comics, includingThe American Comic Book Chronicles: the 1970s, released by TwoMorrows Publishing. He tweets (occasionally and usually in a great flurry) @jasonsacks
Keith Silva spends too much of his time staring into the middle distance and trying to think of something witty or erudite to say. He writes for Comics Bulletin and a blog he never updates. His latest venture is A$$ Pocket of Whiskey: The Podcast. He also writes jokes for Twitter: @keithpmsilva