Obituary Writing from the Desk of a ‘Daytripper’

Much was made of obituary writing last year, with The New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan combing the archives to discover that “the number of front-page obits more than doubled in 2012 over the year before.” Sullivan noted that 30 obituaries appeared on page A1 in 2012, including those that marked the passing of Maurice Sendak, Joe Paterno, and more.

In early 2012, the first person in history to have rowed across the Atlantic Ocean finally met his fate at age 74. Adventurer John Fairfax’s rather exceptional New York Times obituary reads like Wes Anderson. It gained a great deal of online traction for its rundown of extraordinary details, with Fairfax having shot up a campground as a nine-year old Italian Boy Scout (injuring no one), faced down a shark, pledged suicide-by-jaguar, and successfully navigated a pirate’s apprenticeship. Media reporter Jim Romenesko wrote that Times writer Margalit Fox had penned “about 800 obituaries” for the paper when her John Fairfax piece went to press. It appeared on Sunday, February 19th, on page A24.

For an audacious Eisner Award winning comic series produced under Vertigo departing editor Karen Berger, twin brothers and native Brazilians Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá explored a volley of riches and failure from the desk of an obituary writer. While Daytripper‘s journalist Brás de Oliva Domingos wouldn’t earn front-page column inches at The New York Times for his own obituary, his profession is front and center, anchoring a narrative that’s hardly confined to a newsroom.

Moon and Bá demonstrate a deft command of nuance and observation in their chronicling of the human experience. Daytripper‘s lovers’ quarrels, anxiety-ridden bedside moments in hospitals, writer’s block, new romances, and instances of significant loss are all dealt in great detail. Even the day job is structured to dazzling effect — Brás carefully pieces together the lives of his subjects as he crafts the last word on their earthly travels. An editor peers over his shoulder as he shuffles photos, notebook pages, and newspaper clippings in order to merge accuracy and a fitting sense of closure in his copy.

For an Esquire magazine story in 1966 called “Mr. Bad News,” Gay Talese profiled New York Times obituary writer Alden Whitman. Two thousand “advance” obits were filed in the Times building back then, in which remembrances of famous people are prepared and updated for imminent publication if necessary. When Talese follows Whitman to a Carnegie Hall concert, attention is averted from the orchestra pit to a distinguished concertgoer’s facial features and more, a momentary occupational hindrance. “Whitman made notes on such details,” wrote Talese, “knowing that someday they would help bring life to his work, knowing that masterful obituaries, like fine funerals, must be planned well in advance.”

The obstacles and minor triumphs that materialize in Brás’s daily endeavors as a newspaperman and a famous author’s son don’t adhere to a timeline that would prove helpful to an obit writer. Relationships in Daytripper crest and collapse while important characters enter, make a worthwhile impact, and unpredictably take leave, all in a vague and non-linear fashion. But the straightforward aspects are devastating, each loss precise and close to home, and each chapter’s somber conclusion built upon the death(s) of Brás de Oliva Domingos.

Set in a steady stream of lush, hallucinatory colors from Dave Stewart, Daytripper‘s beauty is tenfold. A half-page sunrise in the outskirts of Salvador, Brazil is a meld of soft purple and orange, while the nostalgia cast in the original series’ fifth issue unravels against an evocative array of vibrant blues and green as young Brás chases birds over a hilly countryside. Moon and Bá punctuate their story with powerfully abstract cover art and splash pages that highlight the series’ wealth of visualized daydreams and surreal properties. Affecting in its prose and resonant panel composition, Daytripper is overrun with rich detail. It’s worthy of real estate on any newspaper’s front page.

‘Daytripper’ is an official selection of 2013’s The Angoulême International Comics Festival in France, the largest comics festival in Europe. It is held between January 31st and February 3rd.


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