Reviews: “Who am I without you?” – Julian Hanshaw’s Tim Ginger
I’ve been following Julian Hanshaw’s work since his Cape/Observer/Comic graphic short story win several years ago, and was delighted to see he was making his US publisher debut this summer, with one of our favourite presses, Top Shelf. Julian was kind enough to take time to pen a guest Director’s Commentary for us recently (see here), talking us through some of how his new work, Tim Ginger, came to be, and it whetted my appetite for the book itself. I was not disappointed – Tim Ginger is a beautifully crafted, very gently, quietly told, emotional story about love, about getting older, the decisions we made and where they lead us, the good moments that leave an eternal warm glow in our souls, the lost moments and people who can haunt us as surely as any supernatural spectre.
“Who am I without you, Susan?”
Meet Tim Ginger, a man of mature years, living in seclusion in a trailer (one of those gorgeous, classic, gleaming Airstream types that are so iconic of mid-20th Century Americana) in the New Mexico desert. Retired and in his distant home he seems a bit isolated, lonely perhaps, and yet, he also seems quite comfortable. He seems relaxed with his choices, at peace with himself – he occupies himself with some writing (there’s a lovely wee scene where he drives down the main street of a nearby small town and sees his own book in the store window, “local author”), enjoying the peace of the desert location and some cricket matches with a group of friends (he picked up a love of the sport during his service years when based in the UK in his youth). In some ways Tim seems like the classic “wee old man”, the sort of person you could pass in the street or supermarket every day and hardly notice (although his eye patch does make him a bit more visually memorable).
But just like that older person you see often walking down your local high street (indeed with anyone, but especially with older people), there is much more – Tim wasn’t always this older man relaxing into retirement, sitting on his deck chair in the New Mexico sun. Once upon a time he was a young man, happily in love and married, and with a remarkably rarefied career – a test pilot on top secret craft. This quiet, unassuming older gentleman was once part of that group who had The Right Stuff, who flew faster than the speed of sound and dared to touch the edge of space, pushing engineering, science and human bodies to their very limits, and sometimes beyond (indeed this work is how Tim lost his eye). Tim has been at the heart of the secretive military-industrial complex, and while he takes his vow of secrecy seriously, even in his later years, his writing has seen him invited to various conventions where conspiracy theories are not just discussed but almost obsessed over (this leads to some interesting scenes between Tim, a man who has actually seen behind the curtain, and a particularly obsessed conspiracy nut).
But interesting though these scenes are, the conspiracy theory angle is just a sidebar to the main meat of Tim Ginger, a quiet, gentle, dignified look at life and how we got to where we are, how the past choices and changes and losses can still have so much influence over us, so many years later, not always in the best way. Tim seems fairly content in his quiet little rut, but underneath it all you can sense the emotions, his continual sense of loss decades on from the loss of his wife, his soul-mate – as he sits there on his deckchair by his desert trailer, you can see that he’s incomplete, that he always thought at this point in his life he would be sitting there with Susan, the two of them growing old together. An old cliche, of course, and yet one many of us would welcome in our lives, with the right person to do that beside. Again this is all handled very gently – Tim isn’t of a generation where men showed their emotions too openly, and besides, a former test pilot is someone who can remain seemingly calm. But there’s a lot of raw emotional power to be found with this dignified, quiet approach by Hanshaw, and this approach and pacing let’s us slowly get to understand more of Tim, of the people he has been through his long life, before he was the old man we see now.
But the arrival of an old, old friend, Anna, stirs up thoughts and emotions Tim normally keeps mostly in check, his mostly solitary routines helping him cope with how his life now is, but when he meets Anna at a convention (she’s there with her graphic novel – in a nice aside about our medium Hanshaw has Tim look at her work and comment he didn’t realise comics could tell these kinds of stories). Anna is from Before; before his accident, before the sudden loss of his wife, she and her husband back then were best friends with Tim and Susan when they were based in the UK, close friends, and much as it is nice to see her, it brings back too many memories. He clearly wants to spend time with her again, and she with him, but he’s a little scared, too used to his self-imposed solitary life now, and there’s also that irrational yet still emotionally valid guilt feeling, that if he were to open up to Anna now – assuming that’s even what she wanted – that he would somehow be betraying the memory of Susan.
It’s all beautifully, delicately handled by Hanshaw – some wonderfully simple scenes quietly infer the emotions Tim has within, such as dealing with his dead wife’s clothing, or seeing her hand-written labels on jars in the house. It’s a feeling anyone who has suffered through grief and loss will recognise, that urge to still have some tangible reminder of a lost loved one, yet at the same time how seeing those reminders, how looking at something as simple as their clothes hanging in your wardrobe, can cut you to your soul. Or the way Hanshaw depicts Tim, the seemingly at ease with his life man, suddenly finding those emotions welling up, struggling not to lose control in public; those scenes are illustrated with an elegant simplicity by Hanshaw, which nevertheless carries so much emotional weight with just a few frames of imagery.
There’s also some lovely use of a fairly limited palette of colour – the browns and reds of the desert day, the blues of night – and Hanshaw has the confidence to allow several sequences of wordless panels, the art alone conveying both story and emotion – there’s an especially affecting scene showing Tim visiting his wife’s memorial before a journey, carefully taking a handful of sandy soil to place in a small bag to take with him, all handled dialogue free, that art speaking for itself (there are a number of such deftly handled scenes, a mark of a good storyteller secure in their craft and also secure in trusting their readers to interpret without needless extra dialogue). It’s one of those scenes some may not really get, but I suspect anyone who’s suffered a hard loss will identify with Tim there – it’s an illogical thing to do, but grief and loss are emotional, not logical, and we all find little ways like this to try and retain any thin physical connection to the person we loved and lost, an emotional, spiritual attempt to hold some part of them still in the realm of the living with us. And since he ultimately intends to take it back to the UK where they lived for so many happy years, perhaps it also denotes Tim bridging the sides of his life defined by the time with his wife and the time after she was taken from him, as well as a precious physical connection to her memory.
It’s a hugely satisfying, maturely emotional work, which gets under your skin in a quiet, calm, gentle manner (yes, I know, I’ve used “quiet” and “gentle” several times, but, well, those descriptions just keep coming to mind, there’s a lot of power in that gentle approach), and it’s fascinating to see a much older person being the central character in a comic. That age allows for much more room for reflection, on choices made, corners turned – there’s a running side theme about couple who actively chose not to have children, how that effects them throughout different parts of their lives, how others in society see them because of that choice – as we have a whole, long life to look back on, and it’s also a good reminder that the older person we see was not always that person, they may have been many things across many decades that we simply can’t tell from a glance at them, that they’ve seen worlds, changes, loves, come and go, that there could be many stories inside them.
It’s a story about life and love and loss and change and choices, the ones we may regret, the ones we learn to live with, the ones that made us happy, and the experiences along the road (including a semi-fantastical element from his test pilot years which may or may not be true, but regardless which imparts a certain attitude and peace of mind to Tim and gives us a deeper insight into how he approaches his life). It’s they type of book you want to read in a quiet, peaceful space, breathe in, breathe out, absorb it and let its imagery and story sink slowly into your thoughts while you listen to the music of the spheres.