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Saint Cole by Noah Van Sciver Review

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<i>Saint Cole</i> by Noah Van Sciver Review

Writer & Artist: Noah Van Sciver
Publisher: Fantagraphics
Release Date: February 22, 2015

Writer/artist Noah Van Sciver’s Saint Cole takes place over four miserable, rainy days in the life of a young man with a service industry job, a tense marriage and a baby. As a result, it almost reads like misery porn, à la Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Is it a cautionary tale (don’t get married young, don’t have children without considering the consequences, don’t start drinking)? Or is it a lament for the state of a new blue-collar class — one that doesn’t have the dignity from crafting something with one’s hands? You could interpret it either way, but even the discovery that the title Saint Cole is a pun (revealed on the final page) places it almost in the shaggy dog tradition of narrative. That last step into dark comedy makes the reader unsure whether the ending is, in fact, a happy one and shifts the book from a fairly conventional story into something much more interesting.

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The opening pages, which feature an imperfectly-filled dark circle, recall Kevin Huizenga’s Gloriana. Reissued in 2012, the book features a similar orb that hangs with portent over the narrative; the mark is also highlighted on its cover and labeled with a comparable font. In Saint Cole, the circle bears the name of each day that passes, like a chapter division. Gloriana, too, has a couple with a young baby, but Saint Cole reads like the inverted version of Gloriana’s affirmation of life. Joe, our protagonist, works at a cheap pizza place as a waiter. He’s expecting a promotion any day, the money from which he could badly use, and the nonstop rain metaphorically dampens his tips as he tries to make rent for the month. His girlfriend’s unstable mother moves in with them, which further strains their relationship. Joe’s sleep deprivation and growing awareness of his alcohol problem come to a head between Saturday and Tuesday. He makes, essentially, no good decisions; this progression makes Joe fairly difficult to root for, but he’s not, at heart, a bad guy.

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Van Sciver’s inky panels and simple layout create a kind of claustrophobia, throwing you in Joe’s position, even if you find yourself more emotionally capable than the lead character. Sciver exercises a real gift for this kind of hovering doom, evoked through repetition and dichotomy. One early page features Joe and his girlfriend talking on the phone. In six panels — neatly divided down the middle like the famous Pillow Talk scene with Doris Day and Rock Hudson — the artist creates two miserable halves of the same whole, one dark, one light, mirroring each other’s motions and never quite facing each other. Sciver also renders a meth-smoking scene with diagonal black and white lines running behind the panels, spreading from the bottom right corner to usurp the background as the drug takes effect. There’s a smart mind at work here, drawing its visual references from a wide variety of sources. The mic-drop last moment is especially noteworthy, unafraid to confound the reader and redefine all the pages that precede it.

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