Thursday, December 13, 2012

Elmer: a Comic Book by Gerry Alanguilan

Humanity does not have a very positive record when it comes to dealing with outsiders. So imagine our reaction if chickens were somehow to become sentient. As drawn by Alanguilan, our response is vicious and violent and utterly believable.

Jake Gallo, a second generation smart chicken, inherits his father Elmer's diary of the early days of the chickens' struggle for rights. With that and interviews and his own memories of still-festering hate, foul-mouthed Jake narrates this book. There is humor – Jake's brother Freddie has become Francis the movie star and Jake's relationship with his mother is fraught with all the usual drama.

And there are good humans. His sister May is engaged to a human doctor. Their neighbor, farmer Ben is revealed to have saved the Gallo family repeatedly. And sometimes humans act from their better natures, from the UN declaring that chickens are now a human race to individual people getting coxcomb haircuts. But the guilt from having been chicken eaters and the economic disruption to poultry farming and even bird flu keep getting in the way.

Although the setting is only subtly indicated, the Gallo family lives in the Philippines, home of the author. This provides the added dimension that some of the newly intelligent chickens have been bred as fighting cocks and are capable of killing people. In fact, Elmer is one of them though he has never been a killer at heart and barely survived his time in the ring.

Elmer is not only a graphic novel, it is thought-provoking science fiction, and a gripping story of survival and emotional trauma. I am thankful that the art is black and white because it is quite bloody. Through both art and narrative, Alanguilan forces us to step outside and look at ourselves through others' eyes. The power of a graphic novel to deal with human evil has been evident since the publication of Maus. Another graphic novel of a society in turmoil is Persepolis.

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