By Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot
Mary Talbot’s father is described on the very first page as “my cold mad feary father“. It sets a tone, establishes the essence of James S. Atherton, noted Joycean scholar, and writer of perhaps the greatest book on Finnegan’s Wake published. But here, he’s first and foremost Mary’s father, and fairly typical in many ways of fathers of post-war Britain. Cold, distant, a figure engulfed by smoke in another room, someone to visit rather than play with.
It quickly becomes obvious, in the gentle, sepia toned pages detailing Mary’s childhood that her father felt far more at home in his literary world than he did in the bustling, boisterous house beyond. His work always seemed to come first, his anger quick to rise, his isolation, always shrouded in smoke, a cold, distant figure of authority. The tap, tap, tap of the typewriter a continual presence:
Yet there were moments where he let affection through, where the cold, distant scholar became a father, for just a little while, as Talbot says; “his moments of full attention were magical …. but he was still my feary father“. It’s this contrast, the sadness you can read into the words that gives the tale such power.
But Dotter isn’t just about Atherton and Talbot’s childhood, this graphic novel carefully, intricately, delicately, expertly weaves it’s way through two lives, all connected by father and daughters.
As well as her own life growing up in 50s Northern England, Talbot details the life of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia. The differences are obvious; a Northern middle class upbringing of post-war Britain in nostalgic sepia contrasts vividly against the literary glory of Joyce’s world, money spent before received, never staying long, continually transient, eventually washing up in Paris, where Joyce’s star was on the rise. But so was his daughters in time, her life as Joyce’s “dotter”, the ever-present assistant was nearly left behind for a promising life as a dancer, her absolute passion sadly cut short through injury.
Just like Atherton, Joyce was never the supportive father, another link to Mary Talbot and her own “cold mad feary father“. This man who lived in such changng times, who wrote such modern works could never see beyond a woman’s role as wife and mother. Lucia’s dancing dream was a mere phase, something silly and to be put aside for marriage in his eyes. And the loss of her dream is what did for her in the end, a life played out in institutions, her mind as lost as her dreams of dancing.
It’s all about fathers and daughters, and the oft times troubled relationship between them. Both Atherton and Joyce were driven, obssessive characters, consumed by their work, priorities switched round, children coming second too often. Both men were capable of tremendous moments of tenderness and care, but just as Atheron would swiftly return to his smoke filled room and Joyce, Lucia would all too quickly find her father would all too quickly leave and be back to Joyce as well.
What really makes Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes so compelling is the manner in which the biographical sits alongside the social commentary; the changing times, the gender politics, the way both writer and artist seemlessly mark the passage of years. And there’s a sense of great empowerment, alongside great loss, the memoir and the social commentary. Seeing Mary’s world change, seeing how she not only survived her father’s world but moved on, succeeding where Lucia could not. The final section, as we see Lucia’s descent to institutionalised madness contrasts markedly with Mary’s uplifting release from her childhood – that’s the magical, wonderful moment.
The contrasting tales mesh so well, as the narrative shifts from one to the other, their young lives playing out, if not in harmony, then certainly in sympathy. Both have young loves, both dream, both aspire to be more than their fathers really ever want them to be. But sadly it’s only Mary who breaks free, only Mary who comes out of it all intact and happy.
Surprisingly it also becomes, for those of us with daughters, something of a teaching manual as well. I’m nothing like the father my father was, nothing like Atherton, but here there’s a two-page sequence where I can see a little bit of myself and my reaction to my Molly.
Two pages that made me sit up and analyse my own parenting, worry that perhaps this was something I could be guilty of, and caused me to alter how I deal with my own daughter. So as good as Dotter is as social commentary, it’s unexpected role as parenting self help book is what will stay with me.
Bryan Talbot’s art is visually as rich and interesting as his wife’s story. Had I not known this was Bryan Talbot I don’t really think I’d have realised. The man can alter styles so well, and this Euro-styled clear line meets classic British comic art is something very different from his work previously. And it’s a really, really gorgeous style, full of warmth, beautifully detailed.
The brilliance of Talbot’s art comes from the simplest of things; the decision to make each time period – Mary and Bryan in the now, Mary’s childhood and that of Lucia, a different colour scheme, different framing style, different page layout. It’s obvious, yet simple, and so effective as to float past without question, the eyes and mind simply understanding, without thought, what the artist intended. Brilliance.
Likewise the choice of colours is a master-stroke. Full colour marks out the modern of course, but Mary’s childhood is soft pencil line, sepia toned English rural scenes, as though we were drifting dreamily back there ourselves. And Lucia’s life is rendered in blue, something that accentuates the more extravagent lifestyle so neatly.
In switching between the triple threads; present day remembrances, cream coloured childhood, and Lucia’s blue tinged childhood, both Talbots create something rather exquisite, flowing from time to time deftly and with grande grace. As well as a memoir of two childhoods, this is a work of deft social commentary. And so beautifully done, a beautiful tale of fathers and daughters, of changing society, changing times, illustrated so perfectly by an artist absolutely at the peak of his powers.
Dotter impressed, Dotter amazed, Dotter is a wonderful piece of graphic memoir. As good as the masterpiece of the social commentary meets biography that is Raymond Briggs’ Ethel And Ernest? No, not at all. That has every moment of intense social commentary that Dotter has, it has all the personal revelation and growth, all the moments of changing times…. and it has more, much more, it has a love story more powerful than any other I’ve ever read and I can barely think of it without tearing up just slightly. I’ve read it many times, and never been less than weeping by halfway through.
Still, by my reckoning that makes Dotter of her Father’s Eyes the second best graphic memoir of social commentary I’ve ever read … that’s no mean feat.