by Niklas Asker
Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
When viewing Niklas Asker's debut graphic novel Second Thoughts from a physical standpoint, it doesn't seem like much. It clocks in at a mere 88 pages, and there isn't a tremendous amount of dialog. However, disguised in this wisp of book is a narrative of richly intimate details that is at once naturalistic and surreal.
Jess is a novelist burdened with both writer's block and a volatile relationship. John is a photographer she meets for a moment at a London airport boarding gate. She is awaiting her lover, while he is fleeing his. The reverberations of this chance meting resonate throughout the book, exploring the possible outcomes of second chances and, yes, second thoughts.
There really isn't much going on in terms of plot, but the visual, narrative implications speak volumes, with multiple tendrils of interpretation. Asker successfully mines the emotional dislocation of young adults without veering into maudlin self-absorption. When Jess is speaking on the phone with her lover, she tells her, "I'm sick of writing about insecure women." By the time she hangs up, it becomes clear that it isn't writing about insecure women that is causing Jess problems, but rather that she is insecure herself. It then becomes a question of where she's going to find that security. Will she find it vicariously through her novel's protagonist, or will the very act of writing uncover it? Is the creative act wish fulfillment or personal discovery? Can that art have any subsequent impact beyond its creator? These questions and themes resonate throughout this brief narrative like a Zen koan that hasn't been asked, but merely felt. In this way, Second Thoughts is a startling intersection of sequential art and infinite regression.
Asker's illustrations underscore the story superbly, with an aesthetic that recalls both Adrian Tomine's realism and Charles Burns's dark menace. Underneath inky skies, the London that Asker imagines isn't rain-soaked as much as subterranean, creating a purgatory in which the characters endure their oppressive malaise.
While the art is strong, what really ties Second Thoughts together is its slippery, decentralized narrative. One minute Jess is center stage, the next it's John the photographer... or is it the protagonist of Jess's novel in progress that we're following? There are some visual cues along the way to clue the reader in, but near the end, there is a narrative convergence where the characters' collective trajectories collapse upon themselves like a benign David Lynch movie.
At once subtle and profound, straightforward and Borgesian, Second Thoughts marks an auspicious graphic novel debut for Asker. Don't let its small size and frequent wide panels deceive you into thinking it lacks the storytelling muscle to compete with heavyweight champions like Craig Thompson or Marjane Satrapi. In this case, Asker is creating his own division: the meta-social realist graphic novel.