Sunday, December 13, 2009

Why I Killed Peter: If only another violent act here had also been metaphorical

Elsewhere: I reviewed Greg Houston's graphic novel Vatican Hustle over at Comics Bulletin. Man, that is one crazy book; I really dug it. Also, I did my usual blah-blah about Fringe and Dollhouse for The Factual Opinion. No Venture Brothers though, because I managed to miss last week's episode; I'll have to try to find it before the season finale this Sunday...

Why I Killed Peter
Written by Olivier Ka
Art by Alfred

Wow, this has to be one of the most disturbing comics I've ever read. Other comics might feature plenty of shocking material, whether it's gore, death, the supernatural, or any number of other horror tropes, but something like this, with a true story of just about the most awful thing that can happen in real life, is the stuff of nightmares, haunting the thoughts of readers who can't shake the understanding that this isn't some far-fetched attempt to scare, but a bit of all-too-real horror that continues to affect people every day. That terrible act: child molestation, which isn't a subject anybody wants to dwell on, but is one that we must realize harms those affected in life-long ways, as demonstrated by this autobiographical graphic novel written by French author Olivier Ka and illustrated by the singly-named Alfred. It's a striking bit of therapy on Ka's part, relating the childhood experiences that affected his life, especially one terrible incident in particular, and then moving on to show how damaged he was for decades afterward, until he eventually manages to get some closure through the act of putting it all down on paper.

Ka revisits several periods in his life, heading each section with "I killed Peter because I'm [age] years old", and relating a memory from that time. His parents were kind of hippie-ish, open to free love and extra-marital affairs, but he also spent some time with his grandparents who were strictly Catholic, filling his head with visions of hell if he commits any sin, including playing with his "peepee". As with any child, he's still forming ideas of sex and intimacy as he gets closer to adolescence. And then Peter enters their lives; he's a priest, but not a cold, strict, uptight one. Rather, he's joyful and prone to laughter, playing the guitar and spending time with the family without trying to convert them to his religion. He seems like a good friend of the family, and young Ollie spends his summers at Peter's summer camp, Happy River. It seems like a fun, carefree time, but there are ominous intimations even early on, at least in Alfred's art. The placid serenity of the woods is depicted with harsh swipes of black ink, as if danger is lurking in the shadows:

And Peter's scary dog looks like a ferocious beast:

Tellingly, the dog becomes something of a bond between Ollie and Peter, as the latter allows the former to walk it, something he does for nobody else. It's something scary that is shared between them and encouraged to keep separate from others, just one way in which Peter's relationship with Ollie gets creepy and weird in ways that a child can't quite understand.

And then the incident happens, with Peter proposing that he and Ollie sleep next to each other and rub each other's bellies, a disturbing idea that only becomes more so when we see it happen. Alfred's depiction of Peter's proposal is scary, with his juxtaposition of the massive older man against the frail child emphasizing the priest's disgustingly predatory actions, and the bright, sunny atmosphere of the scene acting as an ironic commentary on the darkness of the scene:

But that's nothing compared to the literal darkness of the actual molestation. It's a scene that is just awful and horrible, making the reader want to look away from the page, even though we don't actually see anything that happens; our view is limited to dark, shadowy images and Ka's narration:

It's ugly and terrible, and it stretches on for page after page, forcing us to wallow in the terrible event. While we'll never have it burned into the very core of our being like Ka, it's an approximation of his experience, a never-ending horror that not only seems to last forever, but lingers unforgettably in the memory.

After this, Ollie moves on with his life, but never really recovers from the deep emotional wounds of the experience. His parents split up, he drops out of school and has personal problems, but he eventually gets his life together, falling in love and forming a family of his own. But the scars are still there, as can be seen in incidents like a heated argument with friends who decide to have their child baptized, or a panic attack that comes over him when he enters the church at a friend's wedding. He starts to sink into a depression, experiencing nightmares that demonstrate the extent of his inner pain:

As with so much of this book, that sequence is incredibly effective, showing all the different ways in which Peter hurt him. This was a trusted family friend, and the way he used him in a perversion of an act of love and then cast him aside like garbage, it's no surprise that Ka was still reeling more than twenty years later.

Eventually, Ka decided that he needed to write down the experience, doing what he could to exorcise it from his system. This led to the book being made after he began working with Alfred, a friend and colleague, but the two of them decided to return to Happy River and try to get some closure. Little did they know that Ka would end up confronting Peter himself and forcing him to face the extent of his actions, but that's exactly what happened. It's a harrowing scene, with Ka placing us in his head as he faces the cause of his emotional turmoil, and rather than try to approximate it with linework, Alfred actually switches to photos, depicting the several pages of the confrontation as pictures that have been altered with moody colors to reflect the emotion of the scene:

That's how the book ends, with the note of, well, not triumph, but at least satisfaction that Ka was able to recover from his trauma and make the person who hurt him face what he did. Would that be enough for Ka to regain some semblance of sanity and continue with his life? Who can say, but what he has done here is a powerful work, exposing the extent of the damage that one person can inflict on another, and the total horror of somebody abusing their power on an innocent child. It's a scary book, but eventually a life-affirming one that shows how people can survive, even when subjected to the worst crimes imaginable. Ka has a strong voice, sure of his words, and he found a perfect collaborator here in Alfred, who brings a sort of European clear-line style to the characters, but also fills pages with gorgeous colors and emotional artistic effects without overtaking the story with his style. It's a great package, and if you can stomach its awful contents, it's one that shouldn't be missed.


  1. Hmm. I'm still working through this one.

    I liked the art. Really. A lot. I liked the different levels of abstraction used in the different scenes, I liked the BRIGHT COLOR/DARK COLOR contrasts (Which you high-lighted really well in the scans.)

    I IMMEDIATELY thought, the first time Peter appeared "Hey, a Priest. Is the kid gonna get mollested?" It's SUCH a cliche in America that it yanked me out of the narrative. The constant fore-shadowing leading up to the event didn't help, 'neither.

    The ending felt tacked-on and either too conincidental or not conincidental enough (or something) to be true, which made the whole thing feel retroactively false to me - On top of it being too predictable and too conventionally narrative instead of slice-of-lifey and unpredictable.

  2. Yeah, the cliche of the child-molester priest is an obvious one, but that doesn't make it any less true, you know? I knew about the plot going in, so it wasn't an issue for me.

    As for the ending, I never considered that it might not be true, since this is an autobio, and as Oprah and James Frey taught us, fudging the details of an autobio is a mortal sin. But now that you mention it, I'm starting to wonder if maybe he didn't actually get to confront Peter, and the whole ending is a fantasy. I'll have to think about that one, but I'm inclined to think that it's not a bad thing. As Ka stated, the whole book functioned as a therapy for him, getting his dark secrets out of his head and onto the page, so maybe he needed this confrontation to happen, even if only in his mind. It gives the story an air of closure, even if it doesn't really resolve anything; the incident still happened, and Ka is still damaged, but it enables him to put a period on that portion of his life and move on.

    Or maybe it did happen; real life sometimes does seem overly convenient or predictable. That's actually kind of fascinating, another layer of depth that I hadn't noticed. Yes, something else to consider. This is a good book.

  3. Well, it's nice looking...

    But, hey, I guess what I'm saying is that enough of it felt like bullshit to me that it didn't work as memoir.

    Now I don't actually care if memoir is true - I basically assume that everyone's memory is as bad as mine and therefore most of it's invented - But it has to feel true. And this just didn't.