Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Sacrifice

by Bruce Mutard

I try to avoid making a lot of impulse buys when I go to TCAF, because I'm always afraid that if I go down that road, there's no turning back, but flipping through this album-sized 240 page graphic novel about Australia in the early days of the Second World War, priced at only $15, I couldn't resist.

I've been mildly interested in Australian history for a while now (just not enough to read that copy of The Fatal Shore that's been on my bookshelf for fifteen years), because as a Canadian, there are a lot of parallels to that country, although most of my study of that has been relegated to reading some Aboriginal literature, and enjoying Gallipoli every few years.  I thought it was time to learn a little about the Second War, and Mutard's book looked the way to do it.

The Sacrifice is the first of three graphic novels (this is the only one published) that follow Robert Wells through this difficult time period.  When the book opens, Wells is a manager at his uncle's plant, but he hangs out with a number of left-wing and Communist friends.  He has turned his back on the Catholic Church, but not completely, and he struggles with his faith and his political beliefs.  When a family of Austrian Catholic/Jewish refugees arrive in town, he becomes personally involved in their welfare, and especially the development of their young teenage daughter Mata.

I have to be honest here - the beginning of this book bored me to tears.  There are some incredibly wordy scenes set in coffee shops that are destroyed by stilted dialogue and an utter lack of forward momentum.  I think it took me two nights to read the first thirty pages, but I'm glad that I persevered with this book, because by the end of it, I was looking for the second volume on Amazon.

I think the problem with the beginning is that Mutard has a lot to set up - the socio-economic and political realities of pre-War Australia are essential to this book, as are the common attitudes towards leftist politics.  It was also important for Mutard to establish his characters, like Robert's Communist girlfriend, and his left-wing journalist buddy, as well as Robert's mother and brother, who have different views.  As the book progresses, I found myself increasingly drawn in to the plights of these characters, and how they differed in their reactions to the news that Australia has joined in the war.

Robert's older brother signs up almost immediately, while many of his friends look for ways to stay out of it.  Robert himself is deeply torn between his pacifist leanings and his desire to support his country and a cause he believes in.  Mutard makes his dilemma, and his eventual decision, very compelling reading.

Art-wise, Mutard reminds me a great deal of Jason Lutes.  He is an accomplished figure artist, and draws buildings and urban landscapes very well.  He also, wisely, avoids the standard tropes of this type of story.  When Robert is sent off to boot-camp, instead of giving us the long, drawn-out scenes we expect from this story development, he instead puts together a multi-page silent montage of images.  Similarly, when Robert, on leave, walks through his town, now filled with drunken American soldiers and the people looking to exploit them, the visuals are stunning in their depravity and dirtiness.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this comic is the relationship between Robert and Mata, who by the end of the book is not yet sixteen, but has become very wild.  There is a 'did they or didn't they?' question, and I'm not sure where things stand.

The Sacrifice is a deeply nuanced and sweeping book.  I don't know how easy it would be to find in stores (it's pretty easy on Amazon), but I recommend it.  Just grit your teeth and get through that first chunk.

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