[26 October 2011]
Marzena Sowa was born in 1979 in Poland, and grew up during a time of tempestuous civil strife, living through a series of events which would eventually see the rise of Lech Walesa’s Solidarnosc movement, the ultimate collapse of Communism in Poland and elsewhere, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. It was a heady time when the massive shifts in history were felt by everyone: Jesus Jones recorded “Right Here, Right Now” in response, and even cheeseball rockers The Scorpions (who hail from Germany) felt moved to record and release “Winds of Change”.
Despite all this, Sowa’s graphic-novel memoir of the era, Marzi, manages to be a crashing bore. This is no easy trick, so it’s worth considering how she manages it. Maybe it’s that a six- or seven-year-old is simply too out of touch with surrounding events to render them compellingly—though I’m not prepared to argue that as a definitive truth, especially with books like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis out there to prove me wrong. What is inarguable, though, is that the story we get here, of a young child’s experiences growing up, is only tangentially related to events in the wider world.
That’s fine as far as it goes, and there’s nothing to say that a child’s experiences can’t be interesting in and of themselves, but it means also that the cover illustration for this oversized book—an orange-haired, glowering little girl surrounded by armed and armored police-state thugs—is woefully misleading. Somewhere out there, possibly in Sowa’s head, such a book may exist, one that confronts the grim apparatus of a totalitarian state through the unvarnished gaze of a no-nonsense little girl. This book, however, isn’t that book.
Marzi spends the bulk of its 200-plus pages relating anecdotes of the narrator’s girlhood—vignettes concerning friends, school, mischievous pranks, visits to relatives and so on. It’s all cute enough, and some of the vignettes are more compelling than others, but there’s little cumulative effect, no sense of events building one on the next. There are occasional references to waiting in line for scarce consumer goods, and mentions of worker dissatisfaction at the factory where Marzi’s father works, but these themes don’t come to the forefront until very near to the end of the book.
Make no mistake: the focus here is squarely on the life and concerns of a young child. Again, that would be fine, if those concerns were particularly illuminating or compelling, but for the most part they are not.
Chapters range from single-page stories like “A Carpet for Life” and “The Half-Cow Feast” to longer, more elaborate recollections that range up to 11 pages long. As you’d expect, the shorter pieces carry less weight, but even some of the longer chapters feel slight. A section entitled “Fur and Feathers” stretches for seven pages and concerns Marzi acquiring a new puppy. It’s cute and everything, but ends up feeling lightweight. Ditto the dancing-lesson story of “Entrechats and Little Mice”, or any number of other kid-centric chapters.
More importantly, Marzi falls entirely flat as a graphic novel in terms of artwork. This isn’t to say that the illustrations are poor; they are competently renderd by artist Sylvain Savoia, although the muted color palette does grow tiresome after hundreds of pages. No, Marzi fails as a comic because in one important respect it’s not a comic—it’s a prose memoir with lots of illustrations. The narrative is not told through a combination of words and images so much as through words with some images to accompany them. There’s little information carried in the visuals which isn’t conveyed in the narration; absent the pictures, the reader could still read the captions (there are plenty in nearly every panel) and get a clear idea of the story. Imagine watching a film narrated throughout with voiceover narration, as a series of snapshots flashes across the screen. Reading Marzi is a similar experience.
Besides this, the visual layout is monotonous in the extreme. Every page contains six panels, two across by three down, lending a visual sameness that does little to enhance the already-less-than-scintillating story. Perhaps a case could be made that the book is a reflection of life under the Communist regime in Eastern Europe, and that the drab colors and repetitive layout is a clever meta-reflection on the subject matter as experienced by a child too young to understand the reasons why but old enough to feel its effects. Which all sounds great, except that it makes for a boring book.
Marzi is sweet enough in spots, but as a graphic novel it’s unsatisfying, and anyone seeking a glimpse of life behind the Iron Curtain is likely to be disappointed, as well. Someday there may be a terrific comic book memoir of growing up under Communism, but Marzi isn’t it.