Saturday, January 18, 2014

5,000 Kilometers Per Second by Manuele Fior

Winner of the prestigious award for "Best Album" at Angouleme in 2011 and described by publisher Fantagraphics as a “masterpiece”, Manuele Fior's 5,000 Kilometers Per Second is one of those graphic novels that stay with you long after you have turned the last page. 

5,000 Kilometers Per Second tells the story of three teenagers, Piero, Nicola and Lucy. When Piero falls in love with Lucy, it will be life-changing for both of them. At first reluctant to leave his hometown after finishing school, Piero studies archeology and is even convinced by Lucy to leave the country while she herself spends time studying in Norway. Set in Italy, Norway and Egypt, Fior's book is about a love triangle in our modern, fast-lived times, spanning time and continents. It is a quiet but engrossing graphic novel dealing with love, home and change and the insight that leaving is sometimes a necessity today, but not one without its consequences.
Piero in Egypt - large parts of the book take place on different means of transportation
Neither staying nor leaving seems to be the right choice for the protagonists. If they stay, they are unable to develop. But if they leave, they leave family, friends and lovers behind as well while at the same time belonging neither here nor there. And even if they return, trying fit into their old lives again, they realise that this is impossible - life abroad has changed them too much and turning back the clock proves an impossible task. All this will have a tragic effect on the relationship between Lucy and Piero.
"Nothing has changed. Apart from yourself."

Movement and stillness are recurring motifs in Fior's graphic novel. Apart from the protagonists moving and staying, the book is full of plants and houses, pyramids and cafes (stillness/roots) as well as motorcycles, planes, cars and boats (movement/mobility). In fact, a lot of the story takes place on motorcycles, in trains and on boats.

The title of Fior’s graphic novel alludes to this modern-day mobility and the false sense of proximity and normality that being able to stay in contact with others via phone or other forms of communication over long distances (5,000 kilometers is the distance a phone call bridges from Norway to Egypt per second) gives us.

Stillness, on the other hand, is often implied by showing us houses – which are of course “homes” to people. The very first page of the story opens with a depiction of a set of apartments where Lucy and her mother have just moved in. The concept of “home” is directly introduced to the reader as well this way and repeated again throughout the book.
three panels, each of which contrasts one moving with one immobile element
As already seen, Fior is a master of using symbolism. If the characters feel the need for change, “breathing” is used as a metaphor. Take Lucy, for example. We find out that she and her mother - her father has left them - have a history of moving. And while she is in tears about having to get used to new surroundings again at the beginning of the book, she later decides to leave Italy and study in Norway for a while, where she at first seems to be relieved because of the change, describing herself to be able to breathe for the first time in a long while. Another instance can be seen early on in the story when Nicola teases Piero about the prospect of staying instead of leaving for university while playfully holding him in a headlock: "I can't breathe!", Piero says. He is of course able to “breathe” once he does leave his hometown.

Another example is the double splash page of just rain that the last chapter opens with – rain, symbolising (in true Hemingway fashion) that a change, a phase of transition has occurred.

Fior also expertly uses colours and setting to show different moods and stages in the development of his protagonists. The story starts off in Italy, a place depicted using mostly yellow and green tones which convey life and youth/growth and perhaps hope. Once the story moves to Norway, blue tones take over, signifying a sort of coldness and estrangement.
time to leave again
Astonishing is as well how complex yet real and lifelike the characters are. One almost gets the feeling that this is an autobiographical work because everyone acts, talks and develops like actual human beings - something that is often missing in comics, even non-mainstream books.

Although 2014 has barely begun, Manuele Fior’s 5,000 Kilometers Per Second is one of the best books you will read all year. And while I usually do not place much value on praise a publisher puts in their own solicitations, in this case I have to agree with Fantagraphics: I cannot think of a better term than “masterpiece” for this book.


Because of Kim Thompson’s passing away, the publication of 5,000 Kilometers Per Second has been postponed by Fantagraphics and as of yet, no new release date has been confirmed. I urge you to write them emails, send letters by carrier pigeon, go to their Seattle offices and stage a sit-in. I don’t care. Do whatever it takes to get this book published. 

This review is based on the German version of 5,000 Kilometers Per Second, published by Avant-Verlag (€19,95)

5,000 Kilometers Per Second will (hopefully) by published in English by Fantagraphics sometime this year ($19.99/ISBN 13: 978-1606996669)

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