The holidays always conjure up past memories, with some related to family, others related to friends, and some related to people who have no role in your life but manage to stay in your memory because you managed to cross paths with them whether in pre-school or at a party many years ago. While your imagination cannot be as active with pondering the courses of the lives of your family and friends if you still are in contact with them, it can ruminate on the people who you briefly met or only knew as an acquaintance, spending endless amounts of time thinking about “where are they now?” It is this curiosity that leads to shameless fascination in the Jerry Springer episodes focused on that question and to moments of deliberation on whether or not to attend your nth year high school or college reunion.
In our wired world, some of the allure of imagining what became of people you knew has been lost with the ability to search workplace websites and social media in order to get a small sense of what happened. But, what about people you never knew? People who lived in an era long before you were born? People who are pretty untraceable today? In this realm, your fictional whims and thoughts can thrive and wander on these strangers of the past, so much so that you could dig yourself into a perpetual abyss unless you had a group of people to fixate on.
Robert Triptow thankfully has a cast of strangers he can focus on for Class Photo while letting his imagination soar with their fictional lives. Inspired by a class photograph taken in 1937 of the P.S. 49 school in Brooklyn that he discovered with his uncle, Triptow creates humorous, strange, and wacky outcomes for each of the children in the photo while weaving in pieces of pre and post WWII American history and culture into each person’s life. No one in Class Photo can escape Triptow’s rampant and wild fantastes, and as a result, the class members’ lives veer toward the insane and the extraordinary despite their humble beginnings in a school that is believed to have existed for children seeking refuge from Hitler’s reign in Europe.
Triptow takes great care in developing complex and concise profiles on each of the Class of 1937, and in the spirit of the American underground, leaves in all of the lurid details of life and injects the outrageous and sensational into his characters to conversely remind us of how we are simultaneously more regular and more strange than we believe. Beginning with Francis Fandango, the double left footed child of famous dancers who eventually became a Best Boy for a television show, and ending with Pat Flatt, the only member of the class to live an All-American life, the collected futures of the class remind us in the most hyperbolic way possible that life is strange and takes different turns for a variety of people. Yet, despite all of the crazy things that happen to various members of the class ranging from preventing an alien invasion to ascending the royal throne of Iceland, Triptow manages to capture how people’s lives tend to re-converge because of a similarity based on a specific place and time, and this is a normal concept that anchors the novel amidst his grandiose fantasies for the class members
As a result of the mix of the imaginary and the real, with a bias toward the fictional, Class Photo feels like an absurd walk through a 50th school reunion, making you laugh at the ridiculousness of some of the events of the individuals’ lives (I kept giggling as I read the tale of Gunther Spalch, the man with flatulence so potent that he became a research weapon for the U.S. government) and making you wonder about how peculiar your own future and those of your classmates will be. Sure, for the most part, our lives will lean more toward the ordinary, but reality does have a way of surpassing imagination sometimes, so who knows?
While there is a bit of a philosophical layer in Class Photo, the graphic novel, Triptow’s first solo book, ultimately showcases the author’s humor, sharply delivered through the expressions of his characters, the narration of their lives, and the dialog throughout the profiles of the Class of ’37. All of Class Photo can be summed up by one statement in its opening, “This book is highly recommended for your bathroom, as each page is about the right reading length per sitting and handy if you run out of tissue.” Class Photo entertains without ever getting too pretentious, despite its NPR-worthy found media premise, because of its self-deprecation and absurdity, so, really, enjoy it on an abbreviated or extended #2, depending on whether one page does or does not provide enough time for you to do your business. That is, after all, one of the common places for you to wonder about where people are today, since what else is there to do in a sanitary fashion while on the toilet?
Class Photo is written and illustrated by Robert Triptow and is available via Fantagraphics Books.