Nicolas from Drawn & Quarterly is Pascal Girard’s captivating autographical piece exploring the grief of losing a loved one at a young age. Montreal cartoonist Girard has been producing for years, saying he “began filling his notebook with drawings on his very first day of school and never stopped. Since he was unable to rid himself of this habit, he naturally decided to make it his career.” Only 35 years old, the career has been an exceptional one with works such as Reunion and Bigfoot, which won the 2011 Doug Wright Best Book award.
The gentle cover of Nicolas is perhaps deceptive with its watercolor children playing with a microphone and recorder upon a baby blue background. Yet, one could very well apply the term “deceptive” to life itself, which is the theme of Nicolas as Girard seeks to cope with the unfairness in the world and, on a further level, the unfairness within ourselves.
The book opens with a short prologue of “Before” showing nine-year-old Pascal and five-year-old Nicolas making recordings of singing the Ghostbusters theme, the younger brother giving the spooky sound effects. It is the height of adorableness through the simplicity of the cartooning. Turn the page, and “After” shows Pascal sitting alone on the sidewalk, staring into nothing. A passing pedestrian asks if Nicolas has died. The simplicity suddenly acts as a knife, cutting deep into the reader’s emotions with poignancy.
In addition to the inviting easiness that Girard’s cartoons regularly offer, Nicolas features a two-panel style that serves as a one-two punch to the reader. Girard notes in his introduction that the original form of Nicolas appeared in a three-day drawing exercise. Inspired by AEIOU: Any Easy Intimacy, Girard sought to experiment with Jeffrey Brown’s narration of vignettes with whole events summed up in two panels. Using his own story of his brother’s passing was initially meant as a shortcut so he did not have to write something new, but the authenticity of the emotion makes the sketch collection into the affecting work it is.
Many of the moments in Nicolas are represented by single sketches. Arranged juxtaposed to one another, they show life in quick cuts that add volumes of depth to each experience. Some scenes are longer, as many as four or five panels, but even these may be seen as a moment within itself and felt with the same intensity. Captured in such style, the reader experiences young Girard’s inability to process such loss, the constant reminders across time of Nicolas’s death, his adult fear of having a child stemming from worries and more all as if they were held up an examined one at a time.
This expanded edition of Nicolas for Drawn & Quarterly includes a new afterword depicting Girard’s relationship with his other younger brother, Joël. He appeared as a baby in the original, a “drag” who was not nearly as fun as the kid a little older. Through the course of the years, Girard sees beyond his veil of accustomed loneliness into a new world of possibility. While the original piece was emotionally powerful in its never-ending journey through the experience of loss, the addition of the continuance of Girard’s life adds to it that there is always hope.