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'The Talk' is an epic portrait of an artist making his way through hardships

Darrin Bell
/
Henry Holt & Co.

In the prologue to Darrin Bell's expansive debut graphic memoir, The Talk, he illustrates, in comics, his memory of being six years old and coming face to face with a pack of snarling, snaggle-toothed dogs. The children around him kneel and hold out their hands to the terrifying animals, but in the moment young Bell can only freeze.

His wide eyes, drawn in simple cartoonish lines that seem nearly to jump off the page, enmesh readers in the scene. The child senses the dogs' continued pursuit of him for weeks after, though his older brother, Steven, assures him he is just imagining the threat. At the conclusion to this prescient opening, the curly haired boy is drawn sitting safely on a school bus, riding away from what he most fears. He crouches over a piece of paper, red crayon in hand, as the adult Bell recounts of his young self, speaking in the present tense: "I draw the beast I know I saw."

Bell's galvanizing new work is all about those two interjecting words, "I know." The Talk explores the question of how people — in this case, a precocious, geeky, and artistic young man, the child of a white mother and Black father — know what they know. How can you make sense of the world around you when your lived experiences don't match up with the conflicting things people around you, particularly adults, say or do?

Darrin Bell / Henry Holt & Co.
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Henry Holt & Co.

The first chapter tracks another pivotal, horrifying moment from the same year in the boy's young life. Bell's mom holds off on buying her son a water gun for fear of the racialized violence that daily puts Black boys and men disproportionately at risk. When she finally succumbs to her young son's pleas to join in on the children's games he sees on the playground, the result, unbeknownst to her, is as disastrous as it is devastating. He is refilling his neon green water gun in a puddle on a street corner, imagining himself a heroic Luke Skywalker in hot pursuit, when a police officer descends on him. The incident stuns the child out of play and into paralysis, and he cannot talk about it for years after. That day, he goes home, dismisses his mother's inquiries, and sits alone to draw.

The Talk goes on to trace decisive moments in the cartoonist's childhood and adolescence as he navigates his way through Los Angeles and Berkeley in the 1980s and 90s, and into his adult life as a successful professional, a husband and a father. It's a portrait of an artist coming into his own — Bell is a Pulitzer-prize winning editorial cartoonist as well as the creator of a number of hugely popular syndicated comic strips, including Candorville. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, and Kwame Alexander's more recent Why Fathers Cry at Night, the book is in part premised on a parent's desire to address hard subjects with his young children in mind. He wants not so much to explain how, or why, the world works as it does — though Bell's imaginative, deeply thoughtful metaphors and analogies for racism and prejudice consistently pepper the book in trenchant ways. Instead readers might think of The Talk in keeping with Bell's description of editorial cartooning. Soon after he wins the Pulitzer for his work satirizing Trump and his political machinations, he narrates: "My son asks if I won for saying how to fix it. I tell him, no, I won for pointing out what's broken."

Darrin Bell / Henry Holt & Co.
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Henry Holt & Co.

The book is visually stunning, and propulsive, with an absorbing narrative voice. Divided into almost two dozen chapters, its drawings fluctuate from the whimsically cartoonish to the delightfully painterly. The page layouts are complex and often surprising, with illustrations sometimes splitting at the seams to suggest confusion, or fluctuation. At other times single images swell across pages to convey the overwhelming atmosphere of a caustic memory.

The subject matter is often difficult, as the book gathers episodes taken from years and years of micro and macro aggressions as experienced by the narrator. They are violent words and acts accrued from strangers as well as those who have known him over the years, from a school friend to a white female professor at Berkeley who baselessly accuses Bell of plagiarism at the very end of his senior year. Despite its weighty, multi-tiered approach — this is not, on multiple levels, an easy read — The Talk is difficult to put down. Reminiscent of longform comics memoirs such as Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, stories about young writers and artists finding their ways through both personal and structural hardships and strife, this epic portrait of an artist is a masterpiece. Like the effects of an unduly perceptive editorial cartoon, The Talk makes a penetrative, and lasting, impression.

Tahneer Oksman is a writer, teacher, and scholar specializing in memoir as well as graphic novels and comics. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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Tahneer Oksman