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on 18 November 2013
On a lovely sunny day in Hampstead Heath, Chris, a postman and part-time musician, is walking with his friend and former band-mate who's trying to convince him to put the band back together and work on their music. Meanwhile, Ivan is walking his dog Carla with his daughter Mel, throwing Carla's favourite ball for her to fetch - and then the ball reaches Chris who picks it up unwittingly as the dog lunges at him and takes a bite of his arm! Instinctively, he kicks the dog off just as Ivan catches up to the fuss, sees a stranger harming his pet and throws a punch at Chris. The fight is broken up and the calmness of the park returns - but the conflict is far from over. From this unfortunate incident follows the story of people, violence and modern life in Oscar Zarate's new graphic novel, The Park.
Zarate, best known for his work on Alan Moore's A Small Killing, brings his love of classic slapstick comedy like Laurel and Hardy to his contemporary tale of a modern Stan and Olly, Chris and Ivan. If the book seems to deal with almost one-dimensional characters and coincidence, it's because that's deliberate. The Park is a farce - comical at times - in the style of classic slapstick, which include broad characterisation and improbable situations. Chris is your archetypical liberal - thin, pacifist, musician, wears sandals, smokes weed - while Ivan is the archetypical conservative - large, loud, strongly opinionated, narrow minded, reactionary and family-centred.
As you might guess from the cover, the book deals with relationships - parent and sibling, mostly, and the way children try to distance themselves from their parents but inevitably behave like them in recognisable ways. Chris' son Vic hates the way his dad allows himself to be pushed around - he's hit by the boorish Ivan and instead of lashing back, takes the punch and tries to forget about it. Chris instead actively encourages retaliation but when it comes time for action he hires a third party to enact the violence. Also when things get too heated between himself and his dad, he ends up walking away, choosing to run in the park, the action itself indicative of someone avoiding conflict, unaware that he is more like his dad than he would like to admit.
Mel too is like her dad, Ivan. She's an eco-artist, vandalising public and private property aggressively imposing her beliefs onto people whether they want to hear them or not, much like Ivan and his blog/radio show. Both have strong personalities that seek to make themselves heard above the others despite their views not taking into consideration others' opinions.
The story also deals with romantic relationships like the one between Mel and Vic, who are brought together through Vic's third party imposed violence, when he pays someone to attack Mel in the park. This scene, like a lot of the violence in the book, is much less serious than it sounds and is instead another bungled, slapstick act. Vic is a physiotherapist who helps Mel overcome her injury and the two fall in love. One thing I feel Zarate could've done better in this book is give us an idea of Vic's age. At first it seems that Ivan and Chris are the same age so you'd expect Mel and Vic to be the same age too but Chris has a job as a physiotherapist and Mel has just finished high school and is talking about university. It also looks like Vic's got grey hair in some panels, so it's difficult to place the character's age. It's a minor point but something I felt should've been established as the two get together and it'd be weird for Mel, an attractive young woman, falling for an older man rather than go out with someone closer to her own age - then again, it would fit into the farce aspect of the book, though it seems like Zarate is aiming for genuine emotion with these two.
If Mel and Vic are brought together by two unpleasant acts of violence - the initial dog attack and Vic's bungled retort - Ivan and Chris strangely find their own lives improved by the wake of the violence in the park. Chris feels better about himself for standing up to Ivan while Ivan finds affirmation in his calling after writing and talking so forcefully about the incident on his blog and show. While initially it would seem Zarate's commentary on violence is that it's comically stupid - the comparisons to Laurel and Hardy - and that he's against it by having Laurel literally say to Chris "It never ends. There's always one more provocation", the results of it are entirely positive to the lives of the characters. Mel and Vic find love with one another, Chris and Ivan both are happier by the end of the book, and though the incident draws the children away from the parents, they are unified at the end. So, is Zarate's conclusion that violence, as a part of life and human nature, is a positive thing? It would seem so.
Zarate's artwork remains the best aspect of the book. The painted splash pages showing the park and the people and life going on around it were absolutely gorgeous, bursting with colour and style. Zarate does action really well and I love how those panels looked like stills from a Laurel and Hardy film. The book itself is also a really well-produced hardcover, with high quality paper - you can clearly see every detail in Zarate's art.
I feel that while Zarate succeeds in exploring some of his themes, like relationships, his other, larger themes are muddled and unconvincing. The characters, while consciously broad, never became so interesting that I cared deeply about their stories, and for farce to work well I think Zarate needed to go bigger and broader than he did here to make more of an impression. The blurb talks about the redemptive and civilizing power of nature but I didn't see that here. As it is, The Park is an interesting read at times with some terrific art but isn't a very powerful or memorable story that could've been better had Zarate focused his narrative more.