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When David Lost his Voice

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David has cancer and in the whirlpool of unsaid emotions, Judith Vanistendeal chronicles the downfall of a family in a touching and utterly engaging graphic novel.

Part of the new crop of promising young comic artists both in Belgium and abroad, a new graphic novel by Judith Vanistendael can count on the type of press hype reserved only for the likes of Brecht Evens or Randal C. Daughter of the modestly known novel writer Geert Vanistendael, Judith broke through with her first graphic novel Dance by the Light of the Moon (originally published as two consecutive albums with the slightly more provocative dutch title The Virgin and the Negro). While most of the attention in her native country focused on the controversial autobiographical aspect of a relationship with an illegal immigrant stuck in the immigration system, Dance by the Light of the Moon was in essence a rather straightforward love story. The media blitz it received wasn’t in proportion to its storytelling standards and characterization of the protagonists. When David Lost his Voice however is a milestone leap for the writer/artist.

David is diagnosed with throat cancer. Surrounded by Paula, his second wife; his daughter Tamar and his daughter from his first marriage Miriam whose child is born on the exact moment when the diagnosis of David’s condition is rendered final. David retreats evermore into an emotional wasteland cut off from the outside world.

Vanistendael’s circle metaphors pop up everywhere in the visual and mental landscape and drags Paula as well as Miriam down only to slam into the wall they all build around their feelings. Only Tamar with her 10 years of age succeeds in witnessing it all with an innocence conveyed through a child’s eyes and forms (together with her play-friend Max) the emotional crux of the story.

Vanistendael displays a sense of storytelling that is in perfect sync with the text, drawings and story. It creates a perfect emotional rhythm for the reader to latch onto. Wordless pages are interspersed between one-panel pages that sync into big splash pages and dialogue setups, all with the appropriate drawing style and camera work. Gone are also the hard black and white and wavery stylings of Dance by the Light of Moon. How David Lost his Voice is in full colour. It features elegant linework reduced to its cartoony minimum in order to still convey realism. The expressive water colours enhance the brushwork and even takes over the linework where necessary.

Especially impressive is the way she handles Tamar and Max’ relationship to the news of impending doom. Showing great empathy and compassion in the way children cope with death in the family, Vanistendael succeeds in adding a comically tragic touch to this GN. She certainly steps away from any cliched reactions as Tamar and both Paula and Miriam are strong women in their own right. Vanistendael has openly stated that though she has dealt with cancer a lot in her immediate environment, HDLhV is certainly not an autobiographical tale.

By focusing not on the disease but on the emotions surrounding it, Judith Vanistendael has delivered a true gem in How David Lost his Voice. Trapped in a generational wall of emotional silence, we can only empathise and frustrate ourselves with the characters. The triumvirate of story, art and protagonists is perfectly harmonised by Vanistendael and this graphic novel represents a major turning point in the author’s storytelling abilities.

When David Lost his Voice by Judith Vanistendael is published in dutch by Oog & Blik I De Bezige Bij. It is a 280 pages full colour graphic novel retailing for €24,90. An english translation is forthcoming in April 2012 courtesy of Self Made Hero.

Follow Judith Vanistendael at her blog.

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