Review: Temperance


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This is why I read comics.

I think all of us get to a point sometimes with comics where it’s not so much that we’re tired of them but we know what to expect. Things fall into obvious categories or genres. Styles of art, even with they’re distinctive, all begin to resemble each other. And even when these comics are good — or even great — they’re rarely surprising.

Cathy Malkasian‘s Temperance (Fantagraphics, 2010) is just that. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s different and thoughtful. And most of all, surprising.

A mostly allegorical meditation on the allure of conflict and the power of empathy, Temperance follows Pa, the embodiment of war; his deformed daughter, Minerva; her amnesiac husband, Lester; and Lester’s wooden leg, who Minerva crafts into a doll she names Temperance. Minerva rules over the fortress of Blessedbowl and continues to propagate the myths of the righteousness of Pa and the heroics of Lester. Temperance, who remembers being a tree, escapes and meets up with Pa as the society inside Blessedbowl falls apart.

The plot — while still fairly linear — is obviously secondary the ideas that Malkasian is trying to communicate. Pa can be seen as “evil” — and he’s certainly bad — but he’s as damaged as anyone else. Minerva just wants control, but also to keep the love of her husband and to get the respect of Pa, who obviously loved other “daughter” Peggy more. Temperance sees them all for who they are, and the end is nothing short of transcendent.

Malkasain mostly works as an animation director, including on various Nickelodeon projects as well as the Curious George animated series. While Temperance is far from being for children, her animation background shows through in her the designs of her characters, with their exaggerated, distinctive bodies and facial features. Her shaded, pen-and-ink drawings have a fluidity and beauty that gives Temperance a quietness that belies the sometimes horrific subject matter.

Malkasian has crafted a deep world with a fully-realized society. It never feels like it’s just a backdrop, and the glimpses we have of life inside Blessedbowl are fascinating. She did more than she needed to in creating interior and exterior lives for everyone here with sparsely furnished rooms and towering outside walls.

The message here isn’t the most original and the book does have somewhat of a tendency to ramble in trying to make its points, but there’s such hope and lightness of spirit here that these are tiny complaints. This is an amazing example of what comics can be.

[Review copy provided by publisher.]

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