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Graphic Novel Review: True Story, Swear To God by Tom Beland

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I have this thing in my head. It's kind of my own personal version of a computer installation wizard. You know, the one with the annoying little messages that say things like, "Do you want to proceed?" "Are you sure you want to proceed?" "Well, if you're really, really sure…"  "Okay, last chance, are you really, really, really sure?"

Sometimes the bastard gets stuck and years slip by while the article, story, or review I originally wanted to write sits on my mental backburner, smouldering and burning around the edges. Lately, I've developed some mental pot holders so I can now grab this baby off the backburner, scrape the crusty stuff off the edges, stir it up a bit, and serve it up with some sort of frilly garnish. Yes, tonight I'm giving you all something out of my very own mental crock pot.

Try not to think of it as leftovers, and I'll make it as tasty as I can.

Reviewing Tom Beland's work is a daunting task. He's got marvelous reviewers like Johanna Draper Carlson who does the Comics Worth Reading blog, Randy Lander and Don MacPherson from the late and much lamented The Fourth Rail webzine, and Andrew Arnold who writes the Comics Love column for Time frikkin Magazine Online, planted squarely in his corner. The guy tends to be a perennial critical darling. He's been nominated for the Eisner Award. He's got his magazine coming out from Image Comics now, and a high-profile writing gig for Marvel Comics coming up. He doesn't need my little ol' opinion of his work floating around out there. Then again, it never hurts to have one more person in your corner pitching for you.

My composition and rhetoric professor, the man who taught me the Montaigne style essay, and quite a lot about the critical review, once told me, "While you're writing, you must remember this one truism. Just because it happened to you, doesn't make it interesting. If you can consistently break this rule you will never fail to entertain."

Tom Beland breaks this rule with marvelous style, grace, and precision. The core story of True Story, Swear To God is elegant in its simplicity. Tom meets this girl Lily while waiting at a bus stop at Disneyland. The two hit it off and this chance meeting quickly turns into a long-distance relationship. Lily is a popular morning show radio host in Puerto Rico, Tom is a newspaper columnist and cartoonist in Napa Valley, California. After several abbreviated visits and a category five hurricane, Tom decides to move to Puerto Rico. That pretty much catches you up on the story so far.

True Story is an absolutely perfect love story at its heart. Beland proves himself an impossibly perceptive observer of human behavior. He's introspective to a fault, and he uses that amazingly precise internal eye to splay glimpses of his life on to the comics page. His family is slightly dysfunctional and extremely loving. Tom himself is by turns insecure and mildly neurotic. Only the character of Lily is seen without much in the way of flaws. I suspect that what Tom is doing here is filtering his perception of Lily through that initial haze of new love. Either that or she really doesn't have much in the way of flaws, in which case Tom is in real trouble in future episodes.

One of the most amazing scenes is the first time we actually see Lily get angry. Tom and Lily set up a dinner party to introduce Tom to Lily's parents. The planning stages leading up to it are a little slice of new couple's hell wherein everything that can possibly go wrong does. They make it through and dinner goes off without a hitch, and at the end of it all as they're saying goodnight, all Lily's mother can do is admonish her for not wearing earrings. It's a priceless moment. We've all been there with our own relatives and Tom walks us through it all again, deftly giving us his perspective. Lily's reaction humanizes her and Tom's reaction to her makes us love them both that much more.

The capstone to Tom's story so far takes place during the Vieques demonstrations. He's delivering an artwork assignment. It's a freelance cartoon for one of the local papers. Two of the demonstrators, one of whom was wearing the Puerto Rican flag as a headscarf, spit on him as he passes by. Tom is, after all, a gringo, and therefore part of the problem at Vieques.

He goes home in shock, and when Lily arrives, he has a breakdown right in front of her. All the pressures and frustrations, the culture shock of moving to what amounts to a new country, all of it comes out in a rush. The next morning, Lily lays out what happened to Tom on her morning radio show, complete with the kicker revelation that the artwork Tom was carrying was a political cartoon that supported the protestors' cause.

The resulting outpouring of sympathy and apalled shock from Lily's listeners is as amazing as it is heartwarming. As a result, Tom suddenly finds himself adopted by an entire nation. You can't make up stuff like this. If it isn't true, it damn well should be.

To sum up the totality of True Story by calling it a "chick flick on paper" is perhaps an accurate description. If that label is to be applied, it must take its place alongside classic fare such as When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless In Seattle, and The Princess Bride. Yes, it's that good.

Beland is a fabulous writer. He combines spot-on dialogue with some of the most gorgeous exposition I've ever read:

"She's sleeping. Her body's so close, I can feel it move as she breathes."
"Here."
"In my arms."
"I feel a sense of serenity that I've never felt before with others."
"If my feelings are a painting… this moment would be the frame."

Within these five simple, elegant sentences he brilliantly sums up the unquantifiable feeling of being in love.

The artwork on True Story is, on the surface, deceptively cartoony. The characters are caricatured simply, but that merely adds clarity to the story. Beland's backgrounds are where he really shines. He gives us super-detailed establishing shots to frame the location, then abandons them as the characters take the stage. This has the effect of making the dialogue jump off the page, and draws the readers' eyes to the characters, which are the most important parts of the story. It's a visual trick that Dave Sim and Gerhard used masterfully well in Cerebus, and Jeff Smith used to impressive effect with Bone.

Together, the writing and the art make for a story that will have you crying and laughing out loud, often at the same time. It's brilliant, essential reading for anyone with a passion for meaningful human interest stories, chick flicks, or just a damn fine read.

True Story, Swear To God is available from any local comics shop that has even a marginal clue. The first and second trade paperbacks are still available from AIT/Planet Lar, along with the 100 Stories collection of Beland's original mini strips. Recently True Story made the jump from Tom's own imprint Clib's Boy Comics, to Image. The first issue is out now, and it's a pretty good assumption that future graphic novels will be released with Image as well.

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  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!