Like a River

By Pierre Wazem
112 pages, black and white
Published by Humanoids Publishing

There’s a real difference between writing a short story and a full length novel (or even novella). The basic story structure for a longer work needs to be handled very differently, and it’s always interesting to see how people handle these two very different art forms. Some authors are only good at one or the other, while many cheerfully straddle the line and attempt both. Since my only exposure to Swiss cartoonist Pierre Wazem was his shorter works in Metal Hurlant, I was quickly intrigued by his Like a River graphic novel; the end result certainly made up my mind on if Wazem was a strong in longer forms as he was the shorter ones.

Vlad’s life isn’t what it used to be. His beloved wife Macha is dead, he’s almost completely broke, his shack in the woods leaks, and he just lost his boots in the river. Vlad’s about to end it once and for all when a surprise appears at his front door—his son whom he hasn’t seen in seven years. But will even this face from the past be enough to bring Vlad back from the edge?

Like a River is a strange book in that its two halves don’t ever seem to really connect. The first half of the book is all about Vlad’s interactions with the villagers, his dead wife, and himself; it’s a character study of a deeply unhappy person who is completely unable to relate to anyone else alive. As a reader you find yourself waiting for that second half where Vlad’s interactions with the rest of the village shift, or redefine, or move forward in some way… but instead we get Vlad’s son and it’s like the first half of the book no longer exists. It’s a strange dropping of what came before, and I don’t think it really works. Maybe that’s because the second half of the book is only marginally stronger, where Vlad’s “conversations” with Macha have to push the story forward because Wazem’s lead is so unable to relate to anyone around him that otherwise Wazem would have never talked to his son. This wouldn’t be bad in its own right if it wasn’t for a strange shift towards the end of the book where a tired simile about life being like a river is trotted out, followed by an out-of-the-blue final confession from Vlad about his dead wife. I don’t know if to blame all of this on being translated to English or if it’s a deeper fault with the story itself, but I can only imagine that most is the latter. This is a book where small pieces work on a certain level (Vlad and his neighbors, the early stages of Vlad and his son being together again) but as a whole it just falls apart.

Wazem’s art, thankfully, is a bit more of a draw. He does a nice enough job with his black and white art here, using a very sketchy and cartoonish look for Like a River. It brings to mind stories from the original Drawn & Quarterly anthologies with its use of scratchy inks and minimalism to draw its characters, and it’s a very attractive book. The packaging is nice as well, with an attractive cover and production values, and a size and shape that was picked to suit the art rather than any particular standard on how high a graphic novel needs to be. My only real nitpick with Wazem’s art here is that for a book where one of the central characters (Vlad’s son) is an artist, it seems particularly odd that we never actually see any of the art that he produces throughout the book. It’s a strange misstep; even if we never see the portrait of Macha that he draws, we should at least see something, some sort of message on if Vlad’s son being taken away by social services before even becoming a teenager was ultimately a good thing, or for that matter if Vlad’s opinions on his son’s art even have any merit or if Vlad’s getting distracted by his own prejudices.

I really wanted to love Like a River but it’s just too much of a mess. While an attractive book, this is ultimately a failure as a graphic novel. As a short story this might’ve worked better, forcing Wazem to trim his story down to the bare essentials and giving him less room to meander horribly out of control. Instead, Like a River just seems to scream for the need for a stronger editor when it was originally published in France. If you’re going to buy Like a River, just make sure you’re buying it for Wazem’s snazzy art, because if that’s the kind of style you go for, you won’t regret this purchase.

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