The Brighton, UK movie theater from which cartoonist Katriona Chapman’s new graphic novel, Breakwater (Avery Hill, 2020), takes its name has definitely seen better days: once a grand and palatial hall worthy of getting dressed up to attend, its opulent and expansive auditorium now sits empty save for mice, birds, and the occasional employee on break, while customers purchase tickets to sit in the shoebox multiplex screens retrofitted underneath its decaying grandeur. Uncannily enough, though, not only is the theater still a going concern, it’s still independently owned — by a kindly but ultimately ineffectual alcoholic old-timer who’s clearly seen better days himself. The question is whether that’s also the same case for Chapman’s protagonist, Chris, and her newfound friend Dan.
Chris is a 40-something introvert, socially isolated and underemployed seemingly by choice, her dreams of a social work degree long behind her, but when Dan starts working at the Breakwater, he rekindles a fire in her to perhaps return to her studies and do something differently with her life despite — or maybe because of — their obvious differences (he’s gay, Asian, considerably younger). For someone used to being on their own like Chris, any friendship is approached with a certain degree of trepidation, but getting close with Dan is about as “safe” as such a situation can be: he’s at loose ends himself, new in town, non-judgmental, and damn unlikely to fall in love with her. But you know what they say about something that seems too good to be true —
On the surface, this new work has little in common with Chapman’s previous book, Follow Me In, but don’t let the shift from lush color art to textured and delicately-shaded pencil art fool you, nor the swapping out of a travelogue for the story of a decided homebody: this is every bit the complex character study its predecessor was, perhaps even more so, and for anyone who’s ever loved, or even cared for in any capacity, for a person suffering from mental illness, be prepared for it to hit like a ton of bricks. That’s not so much a content warning, though, as it is a statement of profound praise: it’s one thing to “get it” when it comes to complex issues, another altogether to communicate that you “get it” both effectively and, even more crucially, with authenticity. Chapman does that extraordinarily well — but not only with words.
At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be a lot happening on some of the pages of Breakwater — mainly the characters stand around and talk while they’re at work, or sit around and talk if they’re at home — but Chapman is an undisputed master at communicating everything a person needs to know with her depictions of a cursory glance, a twitch of the mouth, a subtle gesture, a slow step. Keep an eye on facial expressions and body language here, because that’s where so much of the real story is to be found.
Not that the dialogue here is in any way lacking, mind you: Chris, Dan, and even the lesser-seen characters that round out Chapman’s ensemble are all fully fleshed-out and believably, sometimes achingly, well-realized; they speak like folks you know, have the same aspirations as them, find joy in the same things folks they do — and share many of the same problems, as well. Dan’s issues may be more pronounced and acute, but Chapman is just as interested in exploring how they affect the people in his orbit as she is in exploring how they affect him. How, for instance, is a person who has spent years keeping people at arm’s length supposed to react when the one person she’s let get close turns out to be engaging in self-destructive behavior, particularly when she’s pretty much all he has, given that he’s either already actively alienated, or still very much in the process of alienating, most of his family? This is more than a stricky wicket or a tough spot to be in — it’s a matter of mental and emotional survival for both the person suffering from mental illness and the person who cares for them. In lesser hands, this could so easily slide into melodrama at best, exploitation at worst, but again — watch those faces and figure drawings. Chapman relieves so much of the burden of verbal communication with the attention she pays to the subtleties of non-verbal, physical communication that we’re never in danger of being lectured at or pandered to here. Any work with this level of respect for its subject matter and its characters ultimately, and necessarily, has a tremendous amount of respect for its readers, as well.
And readers, in turn, can’t help but have respect for the provocative, honest, and very humane story Chapman has crafted with Breakwater. The ending is painful, true, but so are the events that lead up to it, and so are the steps the characters are likely going to have to take to move on from it. Chapman shows the good times, too, which makes the downturn that events take all the more heartbreaking. There’s also a quiet kind of hope to be felt as one closes this book — for Dan, possibly, if he can finally address the ways in which his actions and behaviors exacerbate his condition; for Chris, again possibly, in that she’s proven she can move into a new phase of her life if she resists the easy (if understandable) trap of a return to social isolation; and for us, most certainly, given that we’ve been privileged to experience yet another book from one of the strongest and most accomplished voices in contemporary comics, who is hitting a remarkable creative stride right before our eyes, and one that shows no signs of slowing down.
At home or abroad, in color or gray-toned black and white, Katriona Chapman is doing some of the best cartooning of her generation, telling stories firmly rooted in, and adding depth to our understanding of the human condition. Wherever she goes next, any reader would be wise to follow.