Friday, October 25, 2013

One Soul by Ray Fawkes

Once in a while a graphic novel comes along which challenges the conventions of the medium and makes you realize what this art form can be capable of. Ray Fawkes’ One Soul is such a book. It leaves you astonished, excited and exhausted - all at the same time.

One Soul was published in 2011 already, before Canadian cartoonist Fawkes started to write for DC, but the book could not be further from what he is doing over there. It tells the stories of eighteen individuals, from their births to their deaths. Unusual is not only that the characters stem from different eras in human history (starting in the Stone Age through, amongst other periods, Ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, both World War I and II, and all the way to the present), but especially the narrative structure of this graphic novel. Fawkes uses the traditional set up of nine panels per page, but each panel is assigned to a different character. Thus, in each two-page spread we get to know a part in the story of one of the eighteen protagonists. This enables the author/artist to interweave the individual stories and show similarities and dissimilarities in the lives depicted. All this makes for an incredible and demanding read, forcing the reader to switch back and forth between pages, trying to keep up with the individual stories and recurring motives.

Moments of life...
The scope of the book then is grand, dealing with of course life and death, but also the things in-between: childhood and coming-of-age, love, war and religion. Interesting is also how the two lives that ‘frame’ the others (the first one: a man in the Stone Age, the last one: a present-day girl) seem to be the least complex and most straightforward ones – which does not mean that their respective lives are easy ones.

But One Soul is not just a mere description of these lives. It reveals how we as human beings define ourselves and shape our lives. Our destiny, the book seems to say, is created by ourselves but not without the influence of others. This is of course a commonplace, but also at times a disheartening insight as some of the protagonists can never fully realize themselves because of their surroundings, try as they might. While the eighteen people are the same in birth and the first few days of their lives, they quickly begin to distinguish themselves from each other, based on their respective socio-cultural environment as well as their own deeds. This is expressed in a series of paradoxes towards the end, where the characters seem to speak with one voice, telling us that we are “scattered in union”, “united in isolation”, “confused and intermingled”. It comes as no surprise then, that at the end all the panels begin to merge. Additionally, the connection between the individual lives is created by the text, which is devoid of almost any punctuation or capitalization, making the thoughts and utterances seem like one long run-on line.

...and a moment of death.
The quest for finding meaning and purpose in one’s life is then the central aspect that unites all the characters. Those that realize their purpose have a moment of clarity in One Soul, symbolized by a small flame. For some, this moment is reached in their lifetime, for others only at their point of death. Others still never reach this moment at all. The search for meaning and identity being such an important element here, it makes sense that religion plays a central role in most of the characters’ lives as such systems of belief have always been used by people to define their role in the world.

One Soul is not an easy read, but certainly a rewarding one. If you like to challenge yourself once in a while, this should find a place on your reading list.

One Soul is published by Oni Press/$24.99 US/ISBN 13: 978-1-934964-66-8

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