Review of Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes
By Bryan & Mary Talbot
Published by Dark Horse
There’s been a nearly endless amount of academic papers, biographies and even entire college courses devoted to author James Joyce; heck, my wife took a course covering just one book (Ulysees) and though she got a lot of enjoyment out of it, the book is so densely packed with ideas/allusions/cultural idioms that nobody can fully understand it but Joyce himself, and he’s kinda dead. In this review, I’m not going to pretend like I’m some expert on Joyce (far from it). I’m just going to bring you my reaction with the understanding that I’m a woefully uneducated, underachieving fan of the graphic novel art form.
The book delivers the parallel stories of Mary Atherton/Lucia Joyce, both daughters of highly regarded but difficult men. Joyce is raised in the shadow of her father’s literary fame during the roaring 1920s/30s in Europe, while Atherton is raised in middle class Britain of the ‘50s/’60s. The book opens with Mar’s seemingly innocuous discovery of an old passport photo, setting up the framing sequence and beginning the tales of two iives in flashback. In Mary’s case, her father was renowned Joycean scholar James Atherton, an Englishman who rules over his daughter’s life with an iron hand. A perfectionist who dictates his daughter’s every academic step, his brief displays of affection are entirely conditional; her very existence seems to annoy and anger him. The Joyce family is modestly wealthy but itinerant. Lucia falls in love with dancing as a little girl, but James Joyce is an easily distracted, somewhat indifferent father and his wife Nora is an emotionally abusive mother, who vocally dislikes her daughter’s greatest dreams of becoming a professional dancer/dance instructor.
The artwork changes as the story jumps from Mary’s life to Lucia’s – the former is done in Talbot’s beautiful, modestly detailed style; lightly colored, elegant drawings that add a deeper layer of tragedy to the more violent scenes of child abuse. Lucia’s life is illustrated in deep blue-washed ink and watercolor; an appropriate contrast between the biographical/autobiographical stories (and by the time Lucia’s story concludes, the color blue seems most appropriate -those who know about Lucia’s fate can attest).
If I have one complaint about this book, it’s fairly small: the dialogue spoken by the Joyce family is sometimes over-expository. Obviously, there’s a great deal of historical record about what Joyce did and his novels are still in print; however, the way his daughter spoke is not documented, so the writer (Mary) is left to make up her dialogue with a “best guess”, which unfortunately contains a lot of gems like:
Lucia: Margaret Morris is on at the Comedie! Oh, Babbo, let’s go and see her!
James Joyce: Oh, you mean William Morris’s granddaughter? Didn’t she marry a Scotsman? That Fauvist fellow I used to know, Fergusson.
Lucia: How should I know? She’s an expressive dancer – she’s famous!
Yikes. There’s no easy way to get around that dilemma, and it ends up being this book’s only flaw. The scenes with Mary and her father are excellent, brief scenes of tension and sometimes terror, as she negotiates her life under the control of her asshole father.
Talbot is a highly underrated illustrator in the comics industry, though he has worked on high profile titles like Sandman and Fables. I would personally recommend his graphic novel The Tale of One Bad Rat (also published by Dark Horse), with the caution that its plot does involve child sexual abuse (no graphic depcitions, but still…).
All in all, this is a recommended work for those who need a break from the tights n’ capes variety of story. An excellent reminder of the power of the comic book medium and an emotionally charged examination of what it means to live with both an artist of great insight into the human condition (but woefully little compassion for the real people in his life) and an academic who writes critically lauded analysis of said artist’s works (also unable to love unconditionally).
- Miracle Keith