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Mea Culpa

By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in The Comics Journal # 142
June, 1991, Page 58
NOTE: A shorter review also appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Peter Kalberkamp's Mea Culpa, published by Four Walls Eight Windows, is a 300-plus-page graphic novel without words. Actually, there are two place-setting captions and several pictures contain words. But there is no dialogue, no narration; 300 pages of pictures tell the story.

This makes the book something of a tour de force or stunt, a sort of "Why not?" to which many comics fans, quite rightly, say, "What for?" My own response was an ambivalent combination of the two at first. I sort of skimmed through the book as one would read a comic with the word balloons taken away.

The story didn't impress me as much as I thought a story with this much formal ambition should. I mean, not many people not named Sim have written or drawn (much less written and drawn) 300-plus=page graphic novels, with or without words. Not giving too much away (which would be hard - the back cover essentially synopsizes the plot), it involves a boy growing up in what Easterners imagine to be Middle America (the back cover says the Midwest, but the setting is a suburb of Pittsburgh, which no one west of the Allegheny Mountains thinks of as part of the Midwest).

Mt. Banion, Pennsylvania, is a bucolic little town, at least in 1947, when our story opens. Young Peter Wrightman (we will see his name on checks from his father, J.P. Wrightman) starts at a new school, St. Bart's, where the nuns are brutal and the Father is worse. He becomes a football star, a straight-A scholar, and a twisted little psychopath. The latter is fully revealed when, just before graduation from high school, he murders a neighbor (his mother's best friend) for kicks. He is suspected, but there is no proof, so the cops can do nothing.

The next plot development is the major fault of the book, for we are given no hint how a man with this sort of skeleton in his closet, no matter how rich and smart and charismatic (and Peter Wrightman is clearly all three), could get to be president of the United States. We simply skip ahead 30 years with a brief historic montage (focusing, for no clear reason, on civil rights), and suddenly it is Washington, DC, 1987, and Peter Wrightman is in the White House. But of course, the past is not dead, only buried, and it's coming back to haunt him.

As I say, I wasn't impressed the first time I read it. However, images from the book stayed with me and wouldn't go away. Before many days had passed, I found myself picking up the book again, studying the sequence of pictures depicting Peter's first day at his new school, the fight he gets into, and the intervention of the priest, who looms over the boys like an angry go. Then the murder scene. Then the confession to the priest, and the note: "It was better than the cat." Not just skimming this time, I paused and looked and examined. Eventually, I reread the whole thing, taking several days. And I came to an entirely different conclusion.

This is some book. The scene between the cop and Peter after the murder is so marvelously drawn that we can imagine the dialogue perfectly - it doesn't matter what the words are, we know what the words are like. The cop finally flips a book at him, points a finger, and walks out. We see the book on the floor on the next page: Crime and Punishment.

The stunt doesn't bear up under close examination as well as the book does. In fact, it proves the case for words in graphic literature because some of them are necessary to the story. However, the way Kalberkamp gets a piece of dialogue written in condensation on a pitcher and makes it believable is remarkable in itself, as is his ingenuity in general for working what words are needed into the pictures.

What makes the book is not the plot or the stunt - or even the pictures, although they're well-drawn. What makes it work is the characters. Most writers - especially those interested in the comics medium - tend to think of characterization as primarily a matter of dialogue and perhaps thought balloons, with artistic input in the matter of facial expressions and posture and whatnot, not to mention general appearance. This book reminded me of something I learned long ago when I was involved in theater: character is primarily revealed through action. Not fight scenes and chases, but simply what a person does. Kalberkamp's characters do very many ordinary - and a few extraordinary - things, and it turns out we don't miss the words at all. We feel we know these people, when all is said and done, as well as we know the characters in a conventional novel, or even our next-door neighbors.

The story still has that glaring implausibility mentioned above. But then, it's obviously still more believable than any superhero book you care to name. Hell, the events in Maus are pretty unbelievable if you didn't know they were horrifyingly true. Overall, it's a magnificent start for what I hope will be a long career for this creator. He's already at work on something to be called Maxima Culpa, but it couldn't possibly be a sequel, for reasons which I hope you will learn when you read the novel.

I hope he gets this next one done quicker than the seven years Mea Culpa took. But I'm willing to wait as long as it takes for another book of this quality. I highly recommend it.

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