Gary: Book One / by Vik Gill

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  To the prospective reader skimming the shelf of the bookstore, Tyrell Cannon’s matter-of-fact portrait on the cover of Gary: Book One is a very striking thing by virtue of the restraint it represents.

The clean line art which renders Gary: Book One conveys authenticity in what’s depicted through its illustrative qualities: it affects an air of restraint that draws the prospective reader towards it. This initial interest is stoked by a quick skim-through of the book’s contents, which does not turn up anything gratuitous.

The book is turned over: the blurb on the back cover presents the story as a “a journey through the memories of one of the world’s most notorious serial killers. Over the span of 20 years, Gary murdered over 50 women until being arrested in 2001.” The prospective reader notes that it never mentions the nickname given to him by the media, nor does it give his last name--Cannon is subtly emphasizing that neither of those facts should be considered. The prospective reader may be compelled to look up the serial killer and the grisly details of his murders if given such information, and it would color their perception of the book.

But it’s not a deception on the part of the author. In omitting Gary’s last name and media nickname, Cannon is also conceding that Gary is defined by his killings in a major way. Cannon states that “Gary was not simply a killer. He was a husband, co-worker and father.” This is followed by: “as a society, we often find solace in labeling a murderer like Gary as a monster or a demon.” Gary was not simply a killer; Gary is a murderer. Both sentiments seem to be at odds with one another, but they may be reconciled. Cannon’s descriptors, “husband, co-worker and father,” indicate that he believes Gary possesses some depth, but these descriptors don’t give way to Gary being a “person” who is labeled by society. Mr. Cannon makes it clear that Gary is ultimately a “murderer” who is labeled by society.

The prospective reader considers all of this, consciously or subconsciously, and comes to the conclusion that Gary: Book One is worthy of their attention. There is already an expectation of a thoughtful story told with restraint. When the prospective reader-turned-reader reaches the first page, that restraint and the depth that accompanies it become immediately apparent.

There is a lot to be said about how well-judged the first page is, and how it reflects Cannon’s skill as both storyteller and artist. The focal point of the page is Gary’s groin; the almost phallic-shaped fly region conveys a sexual subtext. Gary’s lowered eyes and neutral mouth make him look detached--he doesn’t look normal. There’s something off. Is he human? There’s a little bit of his belly spilling over his waistline: he is human. Soft streaks in the glass facet him--it's an overt way of indicating that he is nuanced.

The clean linework and Gary’s pose make it easy to imagine that a vertical line of symmetry bisects the image--and then the hands become more noteworthy. If the hands are likened to Gary’s modes of expression, the clenched hand would represent an aggressive side, and the partly-concealed hand would represent a repressed side. This line of thinking doesn’t engage the idea that the concealed hand could also be clenched, but the hands certainly represent two aspects of Gary. Are they necessarily at odds with one another? Will other significant dualities arise through the course of reading?

The pairs of lines near the bottom convey physical depth, and along with the hinges and handle they serve to make Gary a prisoner. Or, at the very least, separated and enclosed.

It is a damn compelling first page.

This first page encapsulates Gary: Book One better than words could. It expresses to the reader who Gary is, it expresses to the reader that every page deserves at least half as much attention as this one--and it affirms to the reader that this is a very untypical biography. More cerebral fare than, say, a made-for-TV movie on the same subject.

The book follows Gary through moments that are loosely connected to one another in some way--each moment is typically two to three pages long. They are clearly defined by narrative boxes that give a date and location. None of the transitions ever seem abrupt--the end of one moment usually has something in common with the beginning of the next moment, which prevents the reader’s immersion from being broken. Some moments are told out of order and form a cohesive chain of events when rearranged. Other chains of events are given linearly, but broken up by moments not directly related. There may be two different moments in two different times that come in sequence and are framed in similar way--a visit to an optometrist followed by a visit to an army doctor come to mind.

Cannon does a fine job in making every moment contemplative. He compels the reader, with his draftsmanship, to feel particular emotions in an understated way.

There is one well-judged example of this that occurs in the context of a spousal argument. “We’re different people now,” Gary’s wife says. “Sigh… we’re not compatible.” This is followed by a wide panel in a first person view of Gary looking down on his food, and although it’s not made explicit, there is a realization. I bought a whole meal and she only bought a small drink. Her mind was made up before we even sat down.

Sympathy towards Gary, unease towards Gary, and a host of other emotions towards Gary are conveyed in this reserved way. It’s a quality that ensures that the book is not entirely consumed after the first reading.

Gary is the husband, co-worker and father, but Cannon takes care to underline the fact that the character should be viewed with some reservation. This is done, very early on, through a triptych.

It’s a series of panels that exhibit disproportionate anger. It occurs a little while after Gary gets cut off by another person while on line at the supermarket. It’s an abnormal progression that doesn’t really resemble how typical people get angry. Frustration is a normal part of everyday life, and would not be an inappropriate reaction to that situation--but teeth-clenching rage? This is a significant series of panels because variations on it appear several times throughout the story, and the reaction never feels completely justified.

The recurring anger triptych, the clenched fist and outlined groin on page one--they comprise the beginning of a buildup that culminates in a more explicit rendering of the Gary represented in them. It’s a grisly but necessary business, as Cannon’s intention is not to make Gary entirely sympathetic. The first real manifestation of this Gary occurs halfway through the book, and it’s still not a proper culmination. It’s the aftermath of a gruesome act performed by Gary; the act is not shown, only alluded to.

The second half of the book, past the dividing page, features more flashes of the reprehensible Gary, this time shown as a participant in gruesome acts. There is a clear sort of escalation occurring in terms of how the reprehensible Gary is being depicted, but it’s not fully-realized--it's probably more relevant to the reader’s interpretation of the cycle as a whole.

That’s not to say Gary: Book One feels incomplete--much of the book is framed in Gary’s relationship with his wife. By book’s end, this plot has been brought to a close. And the reader has found it difficult to define Gary in terse terms. Not incomplete; wholly enjoyable.

The work does have its flaws. For example, Cannon’s compelling, attention-demanding first page makes other less skillfully drawn moments all the more noticable.

Also, his art best conveys motion over multiple panels; when motion is depicted in a single panel, it comes off as stiff and awkward.

And while for the most part an overarching unsettling reserve sets the tone for the book, some moments break this in a way that doesn't necessarily serve the story. For example, the first real manifestation of the reprehensible Gary has a clear purpose, as discussed above. But the page itself is done as something that shocks the reader as they read through it. The shock comes off as slightly gratuitous with respect to the rest of the book, and doesn’t seem particularly well-judged. The page does fulfill its purpose, but there’s a competing feeling of nausea that arises out of those first three panels. It feels horror movie-esque; it detracts.

But overall Gary: Book One is a very thoughtful and well-drafted work, and it’s clear that Cannon has put a lot of time and effort into making it. There is a lot more that can be said: about the back cover blurb, the questions posed, the artist’s draftsmanship--it is an extremely dense work. Any flaws it may have are dwarfed by everything it does well. It’s a terrific read.

TL;DR Gary: Book One is an excellent comic. Tyrell Cannon challenges the reader’s predispositions towards the subject matter (the life of a serial killer) with a restrained, well-drafted story.

Gary: Book One is s the first of three books in the Gary cycle, written and illustrated by Tyrell Cannon. The books collect memories from the life of a serial killer. It is self-published and available on his website. There is a lot of great process notes on how the author drafted Gary on the rest of the site as well, so do give it a look. There is also a list of local comic book shops that carry his books at the bottom of the store page. If you have an indie-friendly shop and would like to see his books there, let them know!  Also, come back to Spandexless soon for a review of Gary: Book Two.

A review PDF of Gary: Book One was graciously provided to Spandexless by the creator.