Thursday, November 15, 2012

One Hundred Demons: A Review

Monica Kim, Grace Li, David Wang
Dr. Michael Hancock
Graphic Novels: Images and Text
15 November 2012

There are no restrictions when it comes down to Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons. It contains themes of childhood—some light-hearted, and others more serious—that people of all ages will be able to relate to. Also, the layout is simple, making the graphic novel an ideal starting point to people new to the comics genre and an easier read for those who are more experienced.
The layout of the panels in One Hundred Demons is always the same and very easy to follow. The top half of every panel is reserved for large text boxes which contain Lynda Barry’s running narration. Even though the panels are spaced apart, the contents of the text boxes never lose their continuity of thought, and each chapter is a stream of ideas represented in panels. The bottom half of Lynda Barry’s panels is reserved for illustrations, many of which are filled with word balloons. Many of the childhood stories Barry portrays in One Hundred Demons are tinged with loneliness, and the word balloons emphasize this fact because they are usually placed between characters to separate them. The text in the panels always crowds around the characters and gives an oppressive feel. In contrast, above and below the panels, there is always a large blank space. The overall effect is a claustrophobic one, which is fitting because the story contains themes of loneliness, oppression, and emotional turmoil.
Though the bulk of the story is told through words, One Hundred Demons is filled with rich visual images. From cover to cover, the graphic novel is filled with bright watercolors. Because each chapter has a different colored background, even the sides of the book are a rainbow of colors. Lynda Barry’s artwork is surprisingly detailed. She meticulously adds designs to clothes and objects, and uses slight color changes to add depth. However, though her panels are detailed, they are by no means realistic. Barry uses a childish art style, and her characters have the disproportionate characteristic of children’s drawings. Their movements are not portrayed realistically, and their bodies are often bent at odd angles. For instance, in the chapter, “Dancing”, as the characters dance, they appear to have no joints and their movements rival those of contortionists. However, the unrealistic and sometimes grotesque art style is not a negative aspect of the graphic novel. Most of the story takes place in either Lynda Barry’s childhood, or teenage years. Though much of the narration in the panels has the nostalgic tone of someone looking back, the artwork always portrays events as they happen. The childish art style emphasizes the fact that scenes in the panels are seen from a child’s point of view.
Lynda Barry’s characters often have exaggerated features, and certain features stand out more than the others. For instance, when Lynda illustrates herself as a child, she covers her entire body with freckles. This helps emphasize the fact that she has a very Caucasian appearance and is contrasted with the dark skin of her Filipino mother and grandmother. When Lynda draws her mother, she especially exaggerates the mouth and teeth indicating to the fact that her mother was always yelling at her. The exaggerated features of Lynda Barry’s characters also highlight how she is remembering childhood events from decades ago. After over 30 years, memories have definitely faded, and the features that Lynda Barry exaggerates are probably the ones that she remembers the clearest.
              The straightforward writing style of Lynda Barry undoubtedly provides a strong, distinct narration that guides readers through One Hundred Demons. Though the style can be seen as banal, something about the voice makes the readers feel as though they actually had traveled back to the time when Lynda Barry encountered her demons. Additionally, the dialogues added in the graphic novel make each of the characters believable. For example, the grandma’s dialogue has the tone of a real grandmother, and uses incorrect grammar and even some Tagalog words, which makes her seem realistic.
           One of the big challenges, and perhaps the biggest challenge, of reading this graphic novel is understanding what “demon” means. For Lynda Barry, the demons probably represented the many social challenges she experienced in her troubled childhood. The graphic novel has a reflective tone, seems to be a cathartic release for her emotions. This is more evident in certain parts of the graphic novel. For example, despite the ambiguity of her artistic style, which made it difficult to tell the characters’ emotions from their depiction, it is clear how frustrated she was with her first job working for a group of hippies. She bounces from one panel to another, changing from standing on the left side to the right side of the panel. This, combined with copious use of swear-word indicators in the text boxes, highlights her struggle to win respect in her job. In this case, it could be said that the demon for this chapter is a desire to be respected, and the work experience is used as a representation of that endeavor. Perhaps drawing and writing this chapter enabled her to release some of that residual emotional difficulty on paper.
        Equally important is the meaning of the demons to the readers. While Barry may have sought emotional release in her novel, to us, as readers, the book represents a list of lessons learned. The chapter “My First Job” warns readers to choose a workplace environment with more respect between managers and workers, and choose employers with more stable backgrounds and established business practices. Barry infuses each chapter with recommendations about what she believes to be the right attitude towards life’s problems. In her chapter “Hate,” Barry insinuates that hate is never an emotion to adopt, not even as retaliation to some external cruelty. Through these lessons, Barry creates a sort of handbook for living to young adolescents, where each demon signifies the consequences of naiveté, prejudice, and disrespect.
Though the tone and writing style make One Hundred Demons an easy read, the fact that the story is not structured in chronological order makes the book a bit difficult to follow at first. The demons seem to be presented in no order at all. Also, Lynda Barry’s reasons for her choice of demons are unclear. Some of them are quite light-hearted, such as the dancing demon. through which she realized she’s bad at dancing, but some are more serious, like the lost and found demon, which is about her finding her true passion. They are not organized by order of seriousness and so the end of the book may have some readers thinking, “That’s it?” The ending of the book leaves readers with a lot of questions and an urge to reflect on their own childhood experiences. Perhaps an author’s note, similar to the one included at the beginning of the story could have been added to the end of the book to tie up the loose ends and give the readers a feeling of closure. On the other hand, perhaps Barry purposely left the ending open so that readers have a chance to reflect and find our own answers to the questions left unanswered.
        Whether or not you are looking for some deep philosophical meaning or just plain reading for fun, Barry’s One Hundred Demons is a highly fascinating and graphic novel that is definitely worth reading. The true gift of this work is its ability to represent serious issues of adolescence and societal discrimination while retaining a certain air of light playfulness. Through colorful, childish art, intelligent text placement, and thought provoking themes, One Hundred Demons presents a light-hearted way to gain insights into life’s trials.

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