Joe and Azat (NBM/Comics Lit)

joeandazat-header.jpgA pragmatic American and an optimistic Turkmen become fast friends in this travelogue based on writer/artist Jesse Lonergan’s own time as a member of the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan.

104 pgs. B&W; $10.95

(W / A: Jesse Lonergan)

 

Joe and Azat make for an unlikely pair. Joe is a practical-minded American on a two-year Peace Corps stint in Turkmenistan, hoping the lengthy stay will give him more than a tourist’s understanding of the way life is lived in a far-off foreign land. Azat is a Turkmen who is convinced that, as a free-spirited American, Joe is the man to help make his dreams come true, whether it’s opening his own successful business in a country that still hasn’t quite gotten the hang of capitalism, or winning the heart of Gulnara, a village beauty whose family doesn’t find Azat worthy of her hand in marriage. It’s this collision between Joe’s pragmatism and Azat’s optimism that forms the heart of Joe and Azat.

From the way he tells the story, it’s clear that writer/artist Jesse Lonergan (Flower and Fade) learned more than a few tricks from Marjane Satrapi and her landmark memoir, Persepolis. Joe and Azat reads a lot like Persepolis, not only in terms of subject matter (the earnest depiction of a Muslim society to a mostly unfamiliar Western audience), but in terms of technique. Like Satrapi’s work, Lonergan’s script tends to be extremely text-heavy, relying heavily on narrative captions to carry the dense exposition necessary to convey what life in Turkmenistan is like. In other words, Lonergan tells a lot more than he shows, which is generally a no-no but works well within the context of a travelogue. Most panels feature two elements: an explanatory caption and a drawing that either tells a parallel narrative or illustrates the caption’s information from a more naturalistic angle. By leaving the heavy-lifting to the narration, Lonergan gives the artwork and spoken dialogue more room to breathe and ultimately delivers a wealth of information to the reader in a very succinct fashion. Despite its verbosity, Joe and Azat is a very brisk read.

Though Joe and Azat reads like Persepolis, it’s set apart by its very distinct point of view. Much of the power of Persepolis comes from its autobiographical nature, from the fact that the reader knew it was Satrapi’s own first-hand experience with the historical shifts in Iran. Not only is Joe and Azat a smaller, more personal story, but it’s also a secondhand story, Azat’s life as witnessed by Joe, an outsider, a tourist. That Joe operates as a slightly fictionalized version of Lonergan himself (who based the book on his own Peace Corps experiences in the former Soviet republic) further blurs the line between fact and fiction. But it’s precisely that outside perspective that sells the book’s story: Joe arrives in Turkmenistan as just as much of an outsider as the reader, and his gradual indoctrination into Turkmen culture echoes the reader’s own discovery.

One detrimental thing that outsider perspective does, however, is put the book’s emotional center at a distance. Joe and Azat is really Azat’s story, but all of his thoughts and feelings are filtered through Joe’s perception of events. While the ending the book builds to is poignant and thought-provoking, that level of removal keeps it from being the punch to the gut that Lonergan was likely aiming for.

Lonergan’s art also shares Satrapi’s preference for simplistic, cartoony renderings, with just enough detail to keep the characters distinct from one another. His ink line is thinner, though, and more confident, giving the art a bit of a Scott McCloud feel. The layouts are clean and easy to navigate, and the art never gets overwhelmed by the wealth of text. The only minor complaint is in the lettering, where Lonergan’s odd way of writing capital M’s make them look like "ITI." It’s a distraction, but only a slight one.

At just over 100 pages, Joe and Azat breezes by so fast that it feels a bit slight, but the interesting observations Lonergan makes and the wealth of information he conveys make for an enjoyable little travelogue that manages to capture both the personality of a foreign land and the personal, heartfelt story of a man struggling to make his dreams come true. | Jason Green

 

Click here for a 5-page preview of Joe and Azat, courtesy of NBM Publishing.

 

 

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