After a bit of a hiatus from the blog due to a surge of event reporting, interviews, work, regular life, and the facelift of this site (we have our own domain now!), we’re finally back. During the past few months, I’ve picked up plenty of comicbooks and graphic novels, and they have piled up waiting for review. In the spirit of the content I post here, I figured the return should be a selection from the underground, and after a debate, I grabbed Aaron Whitaker’s The City Troll, a graphic novel I picked up at the hectic but fruitful LA Zine Fest 2016.
From start to finish, there is nothing entirely original about The City Troll, yet it managed to have this peculiarly engaging rhythm and momentum that kept me reading. After spending a few days ruminating on how to describe the novel, I finally realized why I continued to care about the characters in The City Troll: they vaguely remind of characters in Whit Stillman’s films.
Stillman’s characters tend to be criticized for their unrealistic dialog, but regardless of how you feel about the formalist and dialectic nature of the characters’ speech, the best Stillman characters capture the dysfunction and hypocrisy of young bourgeoisie adults trying to understand their own lives. Whitaker’s main characters, Ian and Paul similarly represent the modern young bourgeoisie with their actions and reactions to the various parts of life, and as a result, even though I cannot necessarily agree with the trajectories that they take, they do reflect the nebulous lines between morality, loyalty, and love that exist in our post-internet times. Thus, Ian and Paul probably resemble more of the leads of a Mumblecore film, and Whitaker does allude to this similarity to the indie talkie genre in the formation of Paul’s ideal love, but Whit sets the gold standard of conversation-focused films on young people, so I had his work most in mind as I read The City Troll.
Ian is a perfect being with one exception: his sad-sack, pathetic, self-loathing friend Paul. The two come as a package, so they both move in tandem, for better or for worse. Ian always falls in love, and Paul always pines for love, creating the foundation for an eventual disaster from conflicts between jealousy and loyalty. Amazingly, the two are in their late 20s, and a meltdown has yet to occur, but that entirely changes when Emily enters both men’s lives at separate moments. Ian completely falls for Emily and wants to spend his life with her, but Paul also believes that Emily is the long awaited girl of his fantasies. Ian, as expected, makes the first move, but Paul sneaks himself in between the two, forming a classic love triangle. The battle for Emily’s attention and love follows the course you would expect from all love triangles, making this narrative center the weakest part of the book, since you can predict the entire course that it will take between Ian and Emily, Paul and Emily, and of course, Ian and Paul.
If the core frame of the book fails, then why did I feel compelled to read The City Troll further? The answer: for Paul’s interactions with his father.
Paul struggles with his verbally abusive mother, and we see a few glimpses into that battle, but his relationship with his father is a loving one, even though the two very clearly do not understand each other, especially given that his father has met a hippie woman named Understanding who drastically changes his father’s lifestyle. As Understanding begins to play a larger role in Paul’s family life, we begin to see more of Paul’s evil alter ego, the City Troll, who survives on Paul’s own inability to handle any change and aims to destroy in order to feel satisfied.
This interaction with his father gives us the deepest insight into Paul, and the exchanges between father and son feel the most honest, uncomfortable, and relatable. Given his strained relationship with his mother, it is of no surprise that Paul struggles with the opposite sex, but how he finds shelter in non-romantic relationships with other males creates a far denser premise. Unfortunately, Whitaker focuses on the dysfunction with women through the trite device of a love triangle, pushing the relationships with Ian and the father to the side when they have the most substance to form a stronger narrative. But, tidbits of the father-son bond and the friendship with Ian do remain in The City Troll, and they encourage you to continue on to see what happens to Paul, even if the relationship with Emily feels far too cliché.
As a first graphic novel, The City Troll is unspectacular, but it is not awful. Constructed from Whitaker’s own screenplay, the book’s strongest asset comes from its deliberate yet empathetic conversations between characters, and the weakest comes from the romantic parts, which, sadly, are the most marketable in the film world. Alas, graphic novels and comicbooks do not require as much return on investment as a film does, so marketability should take lower priority than character development and investigation, but the need for a profit in the screenplay rears its head into the graphic novel creation. The City Troll shows that the comicbook medium could work for Whitaker, but he may need a little less American arthouse cinema in his work and more Clumsy era Jeffrey Brown.
The City Troll is written and illustrated by Aaron Whitaker. It is a self-published work.