January 15, 2019

We Shouldn't Fear Hurting: Justin Giampaoli reviews HAMLET IS OKAY by Lora Root

There are times when you feel like a comic is made just for you. I've always had a soft spot for The Bard, having played a rousing rendition of Romeo in a high school production of Romeo and Juliet, and thanks in no small part to Mr. Lindbergh, another high school AP English teacher who dedicated an entire semester to unpacking Hamlet around the time the Mel Gibson movie came out (I even wrote a movie review for my school newspaper). I've always been partial to the tragedy of my favorite character Mercutio ("a plague on both your houses!" and all that), so this particular comic was very much in my wheelhouse and I was so there for this reimaging of everyone's favorite brooding Shakespearean emo protag. 

Hamlet Is Okay is a modern day reinterpretation of the Prince of Denmark, wracked with grief over the death of his late father, not only seeing ghostly manifestations of dear old dad's wispy tales of murder and conspiratorial plots against the crown, but walking the streets begging for a speeding car to put him out of his misery. It takes place in lived-in pubs and flats that push clever twists like Mercutio being something of a hipster bartender, which displays a penetrating understanding of the original character's charisma and tick-tock inner workings. All of this might play like clever fanfic on paper, but what sells it is the execution of the cartooning by Lora Root
The writer/artist is able to avoid many of the common pitfalls of entry-level comics professionals. Root's ability to capture lively facial expressions and crystal clear panel transitions provides a foundation from which to operate. From there, she fills the swift-moving 50-page story with generous background details and an ornate fine line, is careful to use a variety of panel layouts that range from full-page splashes to double-page spreads, panels sans borders, use of negative space, skewed panels to emphasize something awry, to all manner of horizontal and vertical panel compositions. 
Perhaps my favorite skill that Root displays in her efforts is the ability to consistently alter the figure scale. There an old adage I heard from one comics artist that "at least once per page, you should be able to see a character's feet." This guideline will help ensure figure scale variation engaging the eye to zoom in and out, and avoid a monotonous series of talking heads. I'm not sure how much of this skill is an innate ability on Root's part, or the result of her studies at Michigan State University under the mentorship of Assistant Professor Ryan Claytor in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design.

For more than a decade, Claytor has been a presence at MSU, offering comics studio courses that build toward a minor in the field, helming the annual MSU Comics Forum, offering deep-dive interviews of award-winning creators via the MSU Comic Art & Graphic Novel Podcast, all in addition to his steady self-published output at Elephant Eater Comics. Claytor teaches the fundamentals of the comics making craft, but also provides tutelage concerning the business end of comics, from the economics of printing, to organizing signing tours and tabling at shows, to basic marketing and self-promotion. There's an entire generation of young cartoonists passing through this corner of the comics world with a very clear and distinct ethos. It leaves me wondering if future comics historians will be able to look back and identify a discernible style or movement in the vein of RISD's fabled "Fort Thunder" aesthetic. 

Digression aside, Hamlet is Okay playfully alters the structure of the original play, while maintaining critical elements like the ghost of Hamlet's father. We're left wondering if the ghost is an actual apparition, or exists only in Hamlet's mind's eye as a mental manifestation of loss, grief, or regret. We question if it's real or simply a coping mechanism pushing Hamlet toward vengeance as a shortcut to right a perceived wrong and make sense of the lack of control he feels in a world filled with seemingly random senseless acts.
Root also emphasizes the thematic takeaway of the simple importance of friendship. When we're dealing with the loss of a loved one, there's a human inclination to withdraw as a means of self-defense. Yet this is paradoxically when we need people the most. It's the realization that sometimes being strong means asking for help. It's the knowledge that we shouldn't fear hurting as a component of the human experience. It's also the knowledge that if you see someone hurting, an earnest offer of help, even if it requires repeating - to the point of insistence, can make all the difference in someone else's life. 
Justin Giampaoli grew up on 1970s Bruce Springsteen tracks and Green Lantern comics by Len Wein and Dave Gibbons. The first movie he saw in a theatre was The Black Hole. The first mini-comic he ever read was Henry by Tim Goody

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