Dockwood

Dockwood
(w/a) Jon McNaught
Nobrow Press, 64 pages.
(Note: Winner of the Revelation Award at the 2013 Angouleme International Comics Festival.)

Seasons effect human beings in complicated ways. How often in life have you found yourself, as the warm summer turns to the cooler temperatures of the fall, the geography morphs from lush greens to reddish browns, thinking a little bit more about what you accomplished when the weather changes? To be suddenly faced with the reality that the time has gotten away from you to be outdoors and working, wearing comfortable (or no) clothes at all, lounging around bodies of water and relaxing as the long days just seem to go on forever. It is an unsettling feeling when you realize that nature waits for nothing and will move on and go about the business it needs to conduct.

When I have found myself thinking about seasonal change, especially in the summer-to-fall transition, I often turn to poetry rather than prose largely due to the works of Frost, Coleridge, and Wordsworth who have  been favorites of mine since I first read their works many moons ago. Those poets have held favor with me over the years based on their view of the world gets my cranial juices flowing to think about nature and questions of the experiences of being alive. Like that poetry I admire when in such reflective moods I was surprised to find that similar ideas about meanings as seasons shift is also integral in Dockwood. To explore those meanings I believe artist Jon McNaught uses his two short narratives (which I describe as part one and two), in comics form (side query: are comics in a capacity to be classified sometimes as visual poems? Talk amongst yourselves), to demonstrate how people at different stages of life react, both with what the reader can infer internally and external actions, with the turn from summer to fall, and what questions may arise for the reader from thinking about such change.

Part one, “Elmview,” follows a young man who we can presume is between eighteen and thirty-five years old and who works at a retirement home/care facility in the rural community of Dockwood. His job is in serving and interacting with the retirees (food, beverage, clean-up, etc.). One specific page/scene that occurs that I want to focus on is when he is notified early in his shift that someone has passed away in the night, and on his rounds he decides to visit the room. Once in, McNaught moves us from aspect-to-aspect around the room in symmetrical panels—the way light hits a solitary figurine; the empty space where a picture once hung; a room that once was alive with someone that seems to have fallen into a space in between the living and the dead, a space that McNaught examines in each of the rooms of this care facility. Even as we are given access to see the other citizens of this small elderly enclave, each entry into their rooms is just as much a dead space with a living person sitting in it. Each person keeps a television on, but they watch it with no interest, rather it is passing time as time passes outside the window, and McNaught does not let those moments capriciously flutter away undocumented either, as he swings the perspective and the panel size wider at the end of those particular pages. Life is quiet, devoid of connection between human beings other than passing small snippets of conversations.

Perhaps some of this description of part one may sound familiar to you as this section of Dockwood struck a deep personal chord with me. When I was in my late twenties my own grandmother, a woman who had helped raise me and was such a strong part of my familial core, began to exhibit dementia and other health problems. She stayed with my parents as long as they could keep her, but soon it was more out of concern that she should have closer hourly supervision that my family had to make the painful decision to put her in a care facility. Her room at my parents house was suddenly empty, and any familiarity that had existed within it when I would go over and happen to walk past it was gone. No longer was there a smiling wrinkled face, sneaking a cigarette ( a big no-no indoors per house rules), watching her “stories” and rocking back and forth in her recliner. I still think about visiting her once she was relocated to that facility—the smell of  a soured antiseptic, constant background noise, and most of all an air of waiting, waiting for something to happen. In the center of that visit, my grandmother, who no longer resembled the woman I knew, who grew more and more disconnected, could not put names and faces together, spoke rarely but would give a nod if addressed. She died there. But that is what happens in care facilities and hospitals, people die. Is that why we are reticent to visit? The story of “Elmview” awoke these memories in me, stirred me to remember. I never really paid much attention to the staff; who does though in such instances really, but McNaught turned a card on me by making me think about the people working at these places. In many moments in “Elmview” the old and young reflect silently, and as I read and let the “Elmview” section work through small, individualized panels flowing often with aspect-to-aspect and moment-to-moment simplicity, I got the feeling that McNaught is trying to present perspective from many different angles, different age groups, to convey the complexities of what it is to be alive in such a place, and the effect just being in or around such a place as the seasons change may have on people.

Old and Young Reflect in Dockwood

Part two, “Sunset Ridge,” focuses upon a teenage boy making the rounds after school, first with a friend and then as he delivers papers from a local shop. This section does not have the complexity of the “Elmview” section but executes the dreams of escape via a small town boy. This section has McNaught playing with moving us along not only moment-to-moment with the boy, but also from point of view. For example, as we walk down the sidewalk on our young boy’s paper route, as he looks up and then down to the concrete, we see what he sees from his point of view. I like this technique because of its cinematic flavor—that is, it represents in its own way a cut, from one perspective to the other, unafraid to move the perspective around to try to dig just below the surface of who the person is and what they may be feeling. I do not think it is melancholy that is the goal, rather that such action is a human action, and I know at least I am as guilty of soaking in my surroundings on a nice walk as McNaught’s young man.

The boy and the shifting perspective

Dockwood is wonderful in shaking up thoughts and being adventurous in form. It is episodic and nonlinear in regards to moving us through the story (as I mentioned earlier, McNaught plays with perspective alot, even shifting to the perspective of nature looking at us a few times) and has no concern with a real tangible conflict (emotions/thoughts are intangible); rather, it leaves us up to our own devices to pull out what we may from what we are connecting with in the text. That is the real beauty here: that Dockwood, like any good art, whether that be in print, television, or any other multimedia, allows the reader to make connections implicitly and in their own good time.