By Rob Jackson
Okay, maybe you know Rob Jackson’s work already, as we’ve mentioned and reviewed it often enough here, enjoying pretty much each and every new release.
His work encompasses so many different subjects; from autobiographical tales of Jackson’s ice-cream business, the comedy of errors at Goblin Hall, the fantasy of Flying Leaf Creatures, the surrealist laughs of The Gods Are Bastards, the creeping dread of California, the comedy sci-fi of Segway. And although on the surface Jackson’s comic are undeniably crude affairs, their content is not only eclectic but almost always thoroughly enjoyable. Jackson has a pretty unique style, a unique voice. It may take a little getting used to, but once you’re in the zone, there’s a lot to get from each and every one of Jackson’s comics.
Like I said when we presented a preview on the blog a couple of weeks back – “….it’s telling that every time a Rob Jackson comic comes through the door I expect two things; first that I’m going to go somewhere different from last time I read his work, and second, I’m going to enjoy being taken there.”
This time we’re off somewhere completely different once more, a graphic memoir. A family investigation, a ‘who do you think you are‘ where it’s the narrator who knows and the audience who does the finding out. Jackson’s family history isn’t celebrity encrusted, isn’t overly spectacular, but with Jackson’s storytelling, his tales of his family history become enthralling things, whether or not there’s anything extraordinary about them.
And his art does the thing his art always manages to do – it’s raw, but there’s beauty to be found here nonetheless:
We start simply, in 1853, with a 4-year old Robert Johnson being sent to live with his Granddad after the death of his mother. You’ve already seen those pages in the preview we posted.
There you see the structure of the book take shape, with the Granddad Robert Johnson filling his grandson’s troubled nights with tales of adventure, working the docks, smuggling a little, and then shifting his tales to the adventures of his father, another Robert Jackson, a sailor, and his grandfather yet another Robert Jackson who deserts the English army on his way to Quebec. A long trek through unfamiliar territory and meeting the locals follows…
There you go, perfect illustration of the Rob Jackson style – the action and drama mixed in with a dry sense of humour, often in the most unexpected of places.
After these adventures we follow young Robert Jackson to adulthood and suddenly the narrative voice shifts. Where it was Robert Jackson’s granddad doing the talking before, we now have a narrator retelling events. It’s not hugely jarring, but it adds a little touch of unnecessary confusion to proceedings.
There are some lovely twists and tales, diversions following various strands of the family line all the way through the years to modern times with our Robert Jackson’s granddad who passed these tales to Jackson’s father.
And the sheer variety of tales, coupled with Jackson’s invention, his unusual style, his moments of offbeat timing, they all manage to overwhelm the reader, putting the mild confusion of the narrative shifts aside. Because when Jackson’s storytelling is at its best there’s a wonderful dramatic sense played across the pages:
However, there’s still a small nagging feeling all the way through that although The Storytellers is undoubtedly a really good work, it’s not quite the complete package, and just a couple of relatively minor things would have really made this something wonderful. There’s a sense of truncation at times, of shifting too suddenly from one topic to another. The book would really have benefited from either a framing sequence – Rob’s dad telling him he tales perhaps, or from chapter breaks. As it is each story passes a little too quickly onto the next, and there’s a lack of clarity in the storytelling that could easily have been avoided.
But that’s relatively minor here. The real pleasure is passing time and years in the company of Jackson’s colourful and interesting lineage. As with all of Jackson’s comics there’s much, much more to this than the surface, and his memoir is both enthralling and compelling.
The Storytellers is available from Rob Jackson’s website.