Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
The new Gone to Amerikay (DC/Vertigo, $24.99) is not only a terrific graphic novel, it is a quintessentially American one.
The plot is actually three plots, following three Irish characters who arrive in America in three different time periods (although the three tales are presented more or less simultaneously). The first is émigré Ciara O’Dwyer, whose husband never arrives, leaving her to raise her daughter alone in the notorious Five Points slum of 1870s New York. The second is Johnny McCormack, who arrives in 1960 hoping to act on Broadway, but finds a music career in New York’s Greenwich Village instead. The third is billionaire Lewis Healy, whose wife gives him a gift in 2010 New York that ties all of these stories together.
What connects these three is the mystery driving the story, and I will not spoil it here. But honestly, as I read the book I was so captivated by the presentation of this obvious labor of love that I didn’t much care. It wasn’t the destination, as they say, it was the journey.
And “journey” is certainly the operative word for the many Irish people who left their whole lives behind during the last 150 years to take a stab at life and fortune in the New World. Amerikay can’t encapsulate that history, but it does provide a huge lens by which to view it, and many flavors of Irish by which to savor it.
Not that Ciara, Johnny and Lewis are props for “the Irish immigrant story” or anything. Writer Derek McCullough (Stagger Lee, Pug) infuses three-dimensional personalities into these characters, and I enjoyed meeting them. Whatever extrapolation readers care to make about the history of Irish immigration is their own affair. These three led lives we recognize, true, but they aren’t either archetypes or stereotypes.
I’ve saved the bet for last, though, and it is the thing that raises this book to the level of classic: the lush and generous art of Colleen Doran. I’ve followed Doran’s career since 1983, when she began serializing A Distant Soil (the work for which she’s best known). And I’ve watched as she improved by leaps and bounds with each subsequent effort, like a story arc in Neil Gaiman’s legendary Sandman and Warren Ellis’s graphic novel Orbiter. As good as she was then, Amerikay is a quantum level beyond. This is an artist at the peak of her powers, full-throated where power is called for; nuanced and subtle for emotional scenes; detailed, fluid and confident throughout. Doran almost makes you regret her strong storytelling, which gently seduces you into flowing through the three intertwining stories, because you want to stop and gaze at the pictures. The cool thing about comics, though, is you can do both: Enjoy the story on first read, then flip through again and again to admire Doran’s mad skills.
I think it’s also important to note that the third character, the modern one, isn’t Irish-American – he is simply visiting from Ireland, and is fully content to remain on the Emerald Isle. That says something about the Irish experience, too, not just the Irish-American one. Given how writers love symmetry, the fact that the last character diverges in such an important way from the first two is no accident.
I can see Gone to Amerikay being used in English classes to explore story structure; history classes to illustrate themes of immigration and the American Dream; and art classes to teach Doran’s masterful approach to storytelling, blocking and rendering. But most of all I expect to see it on a lot of domestic bookshelves as a well-thumbed favorite story.
Mysterious Traveler: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 3 (Fantagraphics, $39.99) explores the co-creator of Spider-Man’s artistic growth in 1957-58. Many consider Ditko’s work on Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man #1-38 (1963-66) to be his peak, but this book makes a strong argument that when given his head – as he was at Charlton Comics in this period – he was capable of eye-popping, compelling work long before that.
In otherwise lame titles such as Out of this World, This Magazine is Haunted and Unusual Tales, and despite the stultifying constriction of the draconian Comics Code of 1954, Ditko managed a remarkable body of work in both volume and content. Even more amazing is his accelerated learning curve which shoots straight up from first page to last.
Are Ditko’s 1950s suspense stories better than his 1960s superhero stories? The case could be made, and the advent of the Ditko Archives gives us the chance to judge for ourselves.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.