“a complete story has a beginning, middle and end…”

by BK Munn
One Year in America
Elisabeth Belliveau
published by Conundrum Press
ISBN 1-894994-87-6
112 pages, b/w
What does the December 1998 issue of Playboy Magazine have to do with the quest of a fine arts grad to find true love in our topsy-turvy world? This is one of the elliptical, playful questions posed by Elisabeth Belliveau’s One Year in America, the first graphic novel by the artist and animator previously known for a pair of zine compilations also collected by Conundrum Press, the book is a diaristic, impressionistic account of a year in the life of an itinerant artist and teacher (mostly autobiographical, according to Belliveau’s account in interviews and press releases). Almost like a scrapbook of photos and sketches, the work tells a collage-like story of a failed romance and a quest for balance in a frequently confounding world.
The book’s opening sequence sets the stage for the rest of the narrative. It starts with a surreal anecdote, as the narrator describes her loss of childhood innocence upon learning that her youthful idol is not quite the heroic paragon of purity she seems. Belliveau writes, “Katarina Witt was my childhood hero. but then she got super naked.” This reference to the media-quake surrounding the decision of Witt, the 32-year-old German Olympic champion figure skater (twin gold medals, Calgary 1988), to pose for Playboy magazine and the subsequent effect on Belliveau (who in real life would have been 19 at the time of the issue’s publication) sets up one of the main themes of One Year, the contrast between the apparent grace and perfection of the adult world and its messy unpredictable reality, and how maybe the lessons learned through figure skating (“keep trying, learn to fall, learn to jump, and land upright”) can help us navigate adulthood.
From the childhood world of balance and close family connections, One Year jumps into the confusing post-graduate world of the peripatetic MFA, with all its financial insecurity, long-distance relationships, and romantic misadventure. Plot-wise, we follow Belliveau (or her semi-ficitonal stand-in) as she takes the leap into adulthood (“It’s time to get serious.”) by moving from Montreal to a college town in upstate-New York and getting married to a fellow artist. Through a progression of text and images, we experience the slow dissolution of a doomed relationship, glimpsed through snippets of conversation, bumperstickers, and one-word expressions of emotion accompanying snapshots of Belliveau and her beau in a montage of domestic scenarios (shopping for artisinal cheese, watching hockey on a laptop in bed) that ends with divorce (one pair of feet on a set of stairs), followed by self-recrimination, flight, and, tentatively, a return to a semblance of equilibrium.
More than anything, the book projects a sense of rootlessness and anxiety, mitigated by a thread of stability in the form of the comforting familiarity of friends and family. These last are present in a few isolated images or sequence of images scattered throughout the book but mostly in the form of emails, reproduced as hand-lettered drawings by Belliveau, “warts and all”-style, full of almost-adolescent abbreviations, text-speak, and shorthand references to shared experiences. Reading these portions of the book is an almost embarrassingly voyeuristic experience, so baldly honest are these emails in their expression of loneliness and longing, both for a perhaps-mythical adult world of romantic love and married responsibility, and for the lost world of close friendships shared with sisters collegial and familial.
Weirdly, several recent graphic novels by Montrealers explore similar territory to One Year in America. Walter Scott’s Wendy follows a wannabe art superstar on a voyage of self-discovery to an artists’ colony in the U.S., while Julie Delporte’s diaristic Journal details the cartoonist’s post-breakup sojourn at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. (Not so odd, I suppose. After all, do we expect artists to make comics based on their experiences as astronauts or cattle rustlers?) Belliveau’s effort has more in common with Delporte’s approach (they both read as diaries) but where Delporte’s is more of a mood piece told in straightforward sequence using expressive dashes of colour, Belliveau uses a more loosely-connected series of black-and-white juxtapositions to tease out a plot and impose a sort of themed structure onto her experience.
Belliveau’s panels are made up of beautiful lopsided portraits, still-lifes and diagrams delineated using a sketchy, wavy ink-and-wash approach. She depicts little in the way of moment-to-moment sequential action, preferring to tell her story by piling seemingly-disconnected images on top of each other until we have a sense of elapsed time and layered memory. Some of the devices she uses along the way are exquisite, like the decision to pixelate the face of her soon-to-be ex, using a hand-drawn pattern very similar to his hoser/slacker costume of plaid shirts, blankets and jackets. While some of her portraits have a verisimilitude bordering on photo-realism, it’s hard to imagine that the husband could have been identified through her drawings if she didn’t want him to be. Where simply drawing him differently would solve the problem, the pixelation suggests the husband is at the very least an unwilling or peripheral participant in this chronicle of Belliveau’s relationship, while not going quite so far as to suggest there was something shameful or illicit about his behaviour or their union.
I also liked a few double page spreads where Belliveau presents a block of text on the left-hand page, usually an email exchange between herself and her far-flung girlfriends, opposite a series of panels on the right that only obliquely relates to the text. At one point, after the breakup, Belliveau contrasts a page of numbered art instructions with a portrait of (we can only guess) her ex, face obscured by a Neil Young baseball cap, hand clutching a beer bottle. Still life lesson no. 3 reads, in part, “draw from life/trust your eyes/draw only what you see/not what you think you see.” Aside from the obvious play in the title (these are “life lessons,” ultimately), the two pages are a perfect encapsulation of Belliveau’s practice here, superimposing poetic language and structure on top of what are essentially random or “found” images in order to convey her own feelings and inner struggles, making One Year in America a subtle, gently-paced history of an artist’s increasingly less-faltering steps into a balanced adult life.