“Spartan Holiday” document’s Dowd’s travels through Shanghai and Paris to date in search of illustration and periodical histories, with an effective and interesting balance of visual and narrative storytelling.
Story & Art: D.B. Dowd
Graphic Design: Scott Gericke
Publisher: UlcerCity Publications
Travel memoir as a genre and practice has long fascinated many different cultures around the world – Europeans and Americans in particular. Eager audiences lapped up tales of what were, to them, far-away and exotic lands, and the Western world derived much of its cultural knowledge, assumptions, prejudices, fears and fascination from these narratives. For good and for ill.
Dowd is clearly cognizant of this history, both in its pitfalls and its possibilities. “Spartan Holiday” #1-2 focus on travel to Shanghai to investigate late 19th century Chinese periodicals and illustration, while “Spartan Holiday” #3 sees him venturing to Paris to document more of le fait divers press, specifically Le Petit Journal illustrée. In each, Dowd employs the powerful tools of memoir with a laser focus on detail, the personal juxtaposed with the political and, most importantly, a good sense of humor. He also engages with the precariousness of displacement and of a foreign lens.
“Spartan Holiday” #1-2 see him trying to navigate the language, the constant crush of the populace and the layers of cultural strife that shaped China. Dowd examines written Mandarin and the ever-evolving architecture of Shanghai with the same close care he gives his spare narration. One page in issue #1 details European spires as they intrude upon and shape Chinese architecture, only to be assimilated and changed into something entirely new over time. The reveal after this page in particular is a fine narrative and visual high spot in the issue. A double page spread of modern Shanghai vibrates off the page against a navy background, set off by the two lines at the bottom of the page detailing its construction out of the swamp of the past. Gericke’s design skill and Dowd’s artistic skill create a perfectly balanced page, rife with meaning without clubbing us over the head with it. Issue #2 features a double page spread painting of a Wu Youru lithograph detailing the intrusion of modernity into Chinese culture. The power line that crosses the page is almost easy to miss, its pole rooted at the right edge of the spread in the darker brown background, but the woman’s focus on it, or perhaps something below the balcony, is an important clue. Still, it can be missed, and that subtlety is appreciated.
“Spartan Holiday” #3 goes a little deeper into personal memoir, with glimpses into Dowd’s adolescence in a Midwestern town that idolizes football and the American masculine narrative. Named for one of Voltaire’s idols, Massillon is the “City of Champions,” as Paris has long been considered the jewel of Western civilization by many. Not all, however, and Dowd brings a careful skepticism to the shaping of Paris, both in the whimsical reference to the Seine as a frown bisecting the city and a detailing of the various brutalities perpetrated against Jewish people, Calvinists, dissenters and those without institutional power over the centuries. Dowd muses about monuments, design, ideologues and typography (in a particularly fascinating and brilliant page) with ease, just as he recounts his conversations with his high school French teacher and makes a sophisticated link between the violence of France and the violence of America.
The best compliment to pay to “Spartan Holiday” is that it succeeds as an graphic narrative because of its careful balance of text and illustration. Dowd and Gericke play with density across the three issues with very few missteps. Each page contains a proper amount of narrative – sometimes none, sometimes a volume – and the art follows suit. Some illustrations stand on their own, and some enhance or undermine the story laid on top of them. Occasionally, Gericke layers drawings, as in “Spartan Holiday” #3, to great effect. The font is a clever blend of readability and serif flourish as befits a print piece. It gives the story a hint of personal flavor, as if Dowd could almost be hand-lettering the piece, but there’s a crispness of design to it that also suits.
Dowd has a deft touch in drawing and in writing, and a lot is left up to the reader to interpret. “Spartan Holiday” isn’t obtuse, but it doesn’t lead us to any particular, neat conclusion about Chinese or French culture. It’s experiential, and it’s an experience worth having.
The next issue of “Spartan Holiday” is due out at the end of next year, and I’m definitely picking it up.
The Verdict: 9/10 – “Spartan Holiday” is an accessible and enjoyable serial mag for fans of illustration, zines, collage narratives and comics alike.