Von Allan‘s graphic novel the road to god knows… opens with a series of images depicting the stark yet curiously hopeful Ottawa in which the action takes place. It’s a city where boys play street hockey in short sleeves, where homeless men sleep fitfully on sidewalks, where one-eyed jack-o-lanterns grin mischievously on front steps, and where teens lead lives of quiet desperation behind the closed doors of their rundown apartment buildings. In this case, the teen’s name is Marie, and her desperation stems from the fact that her mother is struggling with schizophrenia. Despite her mother’s illness, however, Marie’s life is not without hope. Indeed, she’s a complex character, and her efforts at balancing the stress of living with a sick parent and leading the “normal life” of a teen outside of her home make the road to god knows… a compelling read.
Nowhere in the graphic novel is the tension in Marie’s life more palpable than a passage in which a math teacher berates her for repeatedly missing class. For what can the protagonist say? That her mother stumbled, naked, out of her bedroom several nights earlier, rambling incoherently? That shortly thereafter her mother hurled a pot of spaghetti at Marie’s head, barely missing its mark? That, as a result of all this, she’s had to live with her father for a few days, that he lives across town and has a tendency to sit around the house in his underwear? As the teacher heartlessly explains the mathematics of Marie’s absences, we can’t help but feel compassion for her, can barely resist the urge to yell at the page: Can’t you see that this poor girl is barely hanging on?
But hang on she does, for Marie is, at heart, an optimist.
In terms of story, Allan gives us two arcs at once: while Marie’s nearly overwhelming struggle on the home front undergirds the road to god knows…, a second arc involving her quest to attend a pro-wrestling match (an all-but impossible dream for a poor girl growing up in Ottawa) buoys the proceedings. As these two arcs intertwine, Marie comes to realize that she is not alone in the world and, more importantly, that she doesn’t have to be ashamed of her mother. Life, on the whole, can be difficult, this graphic novel seems to tell us, but we need to be open to helping each other find joy, if only in small increments.
With the road to god knows… Von Allan demonstrates that he’s talented as both an artist and a storyteller. The Ottawa he conjures is beautifully and lovingly detailed — on par, perhaps, with the London of Dickens or the Cleveland of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. Stylistically, I’m also reminded of Black Hole by Charles Burns and Sloth (among other things) by Gilbert Hernandez. Regardless of his artistic influences, however, what’s clear throughout this graphic novel is that Allan is an optimist who strives to explore the human heart in all of its intricate complexity.