An English-language edition of the 2010 Gallimard French publication Hair Shirt is a nightmarish exploration of memory and the pain left by scars from the past. With lettering, line art, and fluid panel edge designs that betray the unpleasant, disturbed atmosphere, creator Patrick McEown has produced a bitter and engaging narrative, albeit one where the conceptual ideas driving the prose and art may not be fully realized or resolved for all readers at first glance.
Even without the definition of "hair shirt" provided on the dedication page, McEown's neurotic line art reflects the pensive, emotional aesthetic of the book as one of penance and remorse. Cooked in colder tones and values, colorist Liz Artinan's variegated hues, at times, resemble Gary Panter's 1979 cover for Frank Zappa's Sleep Dirt album cover. Artinan also stages the scenes quite brilliantly with her use of color lighting to direct audience perspective and alter focal points. Combined with her expressionistic color palette, McEown's pencils and inks are stellar in their minimalism. While visually stunning and the source of much of the novel's inherent power, the style can also be distracting and somewhat confusing, particularly in the design and layout of the speech and dialogue bubbles. Especially recognizable in discourse-heavy scenes, the panels often become muddied and crowded as the "tails" linking the bubbles are obscured by the frenzied and manic nature of the scratchy line art accentuating the background elements. When the art is allowed to breathe and to communicate uninhibited by certain conversations or narrative- heavy pages, Hair Shirt's nuances are free to perform.
From the opening panel and statement of "this city doesn't exist," readers will be transported into a soulless and detached environment of broken relationships and shattered childhoods. Primarily told through vignettes into John's past, an unfolding history of failed and habitually doomed relationships both platonic and sexual, Hair Shirt largely transpires through the mutually shared experiences of John and Naomi from their childhoods to the present day. United at first through Naomi's brother Chris, the bond and affinity between the two protagonists are reinforced through repeatedly tragic and sometimes horrific, exploitative, and traumatic encounters. Sexual abuse, either from a parent or sibling, is hinted at in several of these sequences as well.
As a result, trust forms a critical component of character development and narrative progression. McEown does not make it easy for readers to forge connections with any of the players either through sympathy for what has occurred or, in some instances, empathy for what develops. Redeeming qualities for Naomi and John, or even Chris and Shaz, are difficult to come by, making atonement or repentance even harder to comprehend and grasp, let alone completely achieve. Conversely, it is what makes the central story so attractive, an element of literary schadenfreude in their dysfunction and misery.
Although Hair Shirt is a story of memory shaped by tragedy, McEown quite perceptively questions the selectivity of even these recollections, particularly whether they've been misshaped and conditioned by the trauma themselves. While this challenge to the perceived verisimilitude adds an element of mystery and increased drama, it also lends a specter of confusion as to whether Naomi and John were the victims of childhood torment and abuse, or perhaps even the abusers themselves. Thought-provoking and potentially requiring a second or third reading to appreciate McEown's technique here, the segue, nevertheless, may be quite abrupt and its execution somewhat jarring in parts for some.
In no way, however, is this a detriment to the overall accomplishments of Hair Shirt. McEown even teases further, in the final moments of the novel, that John's abusively inured reminiscences have molded and soured all of his relationships with women. In turn, for some readers, this will lay the blame for the disintegration of Naomi and John's affair squarely upon him. Yet, McEown never passes a judgment or provides a clear condemnation of him. It is left to the audience to decide his culpability in both events from the past and those with Naomi.
A former storyboard artist on Batman Beyond and currently working on The Venture Bros., McEown is also a drawing instructor at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. Although his mainstream background in sequential art has been with the Eisner Award-winning Grendel from Dark Horse or through collaborative efforts with Mike Mignola, Hair Shirt is McEown's first, full-length original graphic novel. With its release, McEown has made a bold debut with his unique voice and vision.
Reviewed by Nathan Wilson on April 1, 2011