by John Cei Douglas
(Buffalo Roots front cover by John Cei Douglas, featuring half of this doomed romance; Emme.)
This is an incredible debut and it’s further proof if any were really needed of the talent that exists in comics today, and particularly the amazing array of talent existing in the burgeoning British small press now. It’s amazing that something this good hasn’t received any acclaim thus far, but here goes…..
(Buffalo Roots back cover, with the other side of the romance; poor Riley.)
In Buffalo Roots John Cei Douglas tells a simple tale of two people, meeting, falling in love, falling out of love and breaking up. In 16 short pages he creates not only a believable love affair but one that resonates deeply in anyone who’s ever been in similar circumstances. And if you haven’t gone through it directly, you’ll know someone who has. Riley is an artist, Emme is a writer. They meet when she returns to her hometown of Buffalo, escaping from something that happened to her back in New York. She’s running from something that we never really discover, but she’s using Buffalo as a bolthole, somewhere familiar and safe to recover and regroup.
Riley’s friends warn him about Emme on the third page of the book:
“As a friend, I gotta warn you … she’s gonna break you’re heart. You know that, right?”
“Yeah …. I Know.”
And he knows what’s going to happen. But in that small panel at the bottom of the page, even as he admits it to himself and his friend, there’s a smile on his face.
(When a smile can say so much. In this case it’s saying I don’t care what’s going to happen to me, I just can’t help myself falling for this girl. Interior from Buffalo Roots by John Cei Douglas)
He’s already falling for her, even though he knows it’s going to end badly, even though he can see that she’s going to leave him and soon, but poor Riley doesn’t care, because at that moment he’s not thinking about anything but her face and her smile and the flick of her hair and how she makes him feel:
“It was if she’d always been there. And in a way, she had. How is it we’d never met before. She just appeared one day, out of nowhere. I felt like all these places were entirely new. Inspired by where I was for the first time I can remember. I saw Buffalo in a completely different light. I didn’t hate it.”
And as he’s saying these words all we can see on the page is the first colour panel of the book, a painting of Emme that captures the essence of the woman he loves. In a recurring motif of the book, each colour panel we see is of Emme, lovingly painted by Riley, detailing his muse and his love as it blossoms. And then, further into the book, as Riley’s world collapses along with his relationship, the colour fades and greys wash over his paintings, colours disappear and his art becomes rougher, looser and increasingly reflective of Riley’s despair.
(A gorgeous example of the use of spot colour throughout the book to illustrate Riley’s intoxication with Emme and also the way Douglas uses panel design and layout to aptly demonstrate the emotional turmoil of both sides of this doomed relationship.)
So we watch as Riley falls quickly in love with Emme, as he paints her, over and over, his colours filling the page with light and love. He’s desperate for his love to be returned and desperately eager to please Emme. So desperate in fact that he’ll ignore her lack of involvement and her inability to return his love. He’s even able to look past the fact she’s seeing other men, musicians and artists just like Riley. It seems it’s Emme’s weakness – as so bluntly put by Riley’s friends when they see her the first time back in Buffalo:
“Oh her? That’s Emme”
“Must be back from NYC for the summer. She’ll fuck anything that can hold a paintbrush apparently”
Riley goes through his own little relationship hell, knowingly and accepting of the consequences. Until it all inevitably goes wrong and Riley’s left alone with just Buffalo, his friends and lots of drink as he retreats into increasing despair and a complete inability to paint. It all happens exactly as we knew it would, exactly as Riley knew it would. And of course, at the end of it, after a suitable mourning period, he’s able to move on, battered and alone again, but painting and living.
What makes Buffalo Roots so special, so affecting, and raises it above just another simple tale of a man spectacularly fucking up a relationship is that Riley’s tale isn’t told in isolation. The book is all about the relationship between Riley and Emme. And Emme’s side of the story takes equal billing on every page. As we see Riley falling for Emme, it’s obvious to everyone, except Riley, that she feels threatened and deeply uncomfortable with the pressure Riley’s putting her under. So she retreats, scared of committing, and pulls further and further away from the overbearing love she’s receiving.
“Don’t fall in love with me”
“I panic when people get too close, I just feel like I should warn you. It’s how I am”
“I can’t handle this, it’s too much”
(More interior art from Buffalo Roots, this time looking at Emme and her motivations.)
And as she retreats, as she sees other men and reacts against Riley’s desperate attempts to please her, you can see the pain she’s going through. She tries to make Riley know that she’s not in love with him, or at least not in the same way that Riley is. But eventually it all becomes too much, and she breaks down and knowing that it’s all getting too much is the spur for her to run again, this time back to New York, where she starts writing again.
In the end, the relationship comes full circle, Emme, or Emma as she’s properly called finds the life she wants back in New York. She’s happy in her life and eventually, after mourning the loss of his love, Riley pulls through as well. Each faces their problems and moves on, life carries on as always.
What works so beautifully in Buffalo Roots is the way Douglas so seamlessly intertwines the twin tales of Emme/Emma and Riley. Each one is constantly emoting, in word and thought through the book. But the way each page is presented makes it sometimes unclear who’s saying what. Each phrase can be interpreted to suit either party. Douglas writes in a strange, slightly fractured style and lays his panels out in a non-linear style that makes Buffalo Roots a difficult read. But his skill and flair on a page means that, although difficult, it’s never less than a pleasure. In fact, the difficult nature of the page, the fractured nature of the writing merely emphasises the raw emotion and the two distinct voices even more. Similarly, his artwork, reminiscent of a scratchier Tomine works really well at getting the emotional payload of the story across, and the colour spot illustrations are a delight, literally lighting up the page with first love and then increasing sadness and despair as the book progresses.
Buffalo Roots is a really great book. John Cei Douglas writes a phenomenally good story of a relationship breakdown and illustrates it with some gorgeous visuals. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Sadly, there’s not that many places you can get the book from. It is available in complete 2.57Mb pdf form here: Buffalo Roots pdf. But when you’ve looked at it online all I can say is that seeing it on screen is a poor second to actually having it in your hands. This is a book you need to read and need to hold.
John Cei Douglas has a website and an online portfolio of work. At the website there’s the aforementioned Buffalo Roots pdf and also another strip, just as good, The Masculine Front. There’s also a Flickr Page and his MySpace. John’s email for copies of Buffalo Roots.
Richard Bruton is a lifelong comics fan and former Comic Book Store Guy; you can read more of his thoughts on comics and life on his blog Fictions.