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Graphic Novel Review: Years of the Elephant by Willy Linthout

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Willy Linthout is a veteran comic writer and artist and co-creator of the popular Belgian strip, "Urbanus," which has seen over 120 graphic albums published since its first appearance in 1983. Known for its zany humour and colourful, cartoonish style, "Urbanus" cemented Linthout's reputation as a fine comedic writer and draughtsman and led to much of his work being translated from the original Flemish and distributed internationally. His latest and most intensely personal work, Years of the Elephant, is profoundly sad, heartbreakingly funny and often surreal, dissection of one man's grieving process as he comes to terms with the suicide of his son.

Charles Germonprez is a middle-aged office worker with a safe, comfortable and utterly unremarkable existence whose life is set on a path of absurd self-discovery by the fact of his son's death by leaping from the top of the apartment building in which they live.

In order to cope, Germonprez attempts to carry on with day-to-day life as normal and returns to work where he finds his bullish boss gradually transmogrifying into a human chicken which lays eggs that hatch to produce dozens of tiny boss facsimiles. This is just the start of an absurd, often blackly comic, series of events that articulate the various stages of Germonprez's grieving.

You might expect such weighty material to make for a difficult read, but Linthout's deft handling of the subject ensures that the overall mood is modulated by a keen sense of the absurdities of life as magnified by the onset of crisis, and the coming-to-terms that must follow. For example, the chalk outline of his son's body, left outside on the pavement following the tragedy, comes to life, becoming a source of comfort for Germonprez, and acting as a device by which Linthout can shed light on the history of the protagonist's relationship with his son. This unwillingness to let go of his lost child is perhaps most poignantly demonstrated by the heartbreaking, ridiculous spectacle of Germonprez trying to convince his therapist that his son is using Morse code to converse with him via the breathing apparatus he has been given to treat his sleep apnea. The last page of the book reveals just how close Linthout is to his subject, as he reveals himself, the author, donning his breathing apparatus as he climbs into bed, before turning out the light and saying 'Goodnight, Sam' to a dark empty room. (Sam, of course, being Linthout's own son, who took his own life, age 21.)

Linthout's layouts are simple, but effective, and his style cartoonish, almost childlike at times, yet he achieves a level of truth rarely achieved by those more concerned with graphic realism. His choice to leave his pencil-work bare, without the benefit of a veneer of inks or colours, is a masterstroke, depicting Germonprez's world as one where nothing is fixed or certain, not even the chalk outline of his son's corpse.

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