Cairo (DC/Vertigo)

cairo-header.jpgEssayist G. Willow Wilson and illustrator M.K. Perker set their sights high for this graphic novel, but does their lack of comics experience hinder the final product?

 

 

160 pgs. B&W; $24.99

(W: G. Willow Wilson; A: M.K. Perker)

 

Cairo is written, in many ways, as a loving tribute to the eponymous city itself. Set in the Egyptian capital, the book follows a group of characters from a myriad of nationalities and social backgrounds—including an Israeli soldier, an Egyptian journalist, a drug-runner, a suicide bomber, and an American student—brought together by the rather unlikely circumstance of the theft of a hookah in which it just so happens a "genie" is imprisoned. This framework allows the story to explore the politics of the Middle East, while also exploring the more mystical elements of the culture there.

It is a rather ambitious goal this book’s creators undertook, especially considering they are both relatively inexperienced with the medium. Writer G. Willow Wilson and artist M.K. Perker have worked in their respective fields for many years—Wilson as an essayist for esteemed magazines such as Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Magazine, and the defunct Egypt-based Cairo Magazine, and Perker as an illustrator for publications ranging from The New Yorker to MAD Magazine—but this book marks Wilson’s first foray into comics while most of Perker’s experience is as a cartoonist and not a sequential artist. Frankly it shows, as both creators are clearly unaccustomed to the format of comics and fall back on the skills of their day jobs a bit too often.

Click for a larger image.It’s obvious that the writer is a journalist by trade, which works to both the book’s benefit and its detriment. Wilson’s approach to the story is to mix the fantasy aspects with a real-world sensibility towards the modern-day issues facing the region. These disparate elements are not mixed perfectly, and the social awareness of the story occasionally can come across as a bit heavy-handed, especially in one bit in which an Egyptian journalist and a young American girl argue politics while spurred on by an evil jinn. But for the most part these two sides to the story do fit together well, and Wilson uses the fanciful trappings of the plot to grab our attention while she delivers her message to us.

What makes Wilson’s background as a journalist most clear, however, is not in the subject matter but in how the story is told. The book is at times overly verbose, relying too much on the words to tell the story and not fully utilizing the art as a storytelling tool. The characters are incredibly talkative, and sometimes it is transparent that their dialogue is being used either for exposition or as an authorial soapbox. Thus, the conversations between characters can be quite clunky, and the word balloons occasionally crowd out the images.

The artist’s style too can seem a bit ill-suited for comics. Perker clearly has great talent as an illustrator, having worked for a number of well-regarded publications over the past two decades, such skills do not always translate well into good comic art. The faces and postures of the characters are very expressive; Perker is clearly skilled at creating real emotional resonance in the characters he draws. Some of the fantasy sequences involving demons trawling through catacombs are quite visually arresting as well. The composition of certain panels is occasionally awkward, however, and the blocking of some scenes can be rather bland and uninteresting. In many of the images we only see half of a character’s face, either in profile or because it extends off-panel, or characters have their backs to the "camera."

These assets and these flaws add up to a finished product that is very much a mixed bag. It has interesting story elements that aren’t always handled well and characters that seem like clichés in one scene and very real in the next. The art similarly seems to lack polish on some pages while in others it is incredibly skillful. It is difficult then to recommend Cairo in its present form, as a $25 hardcover, even though it was enjoyable enough to read in the end. Perhaps though once the book is in paperback form, and a bit less expensive, it might be worth a look. | Steve Higgins

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