“Dreamers of the Day” is Barnett’s foray into the life of T.E. Lawrence, known best to American as the titular Lawrence of Arabia. Throughout this memoir, Barnett documents her research trip to Oxford in early 2019 to learn more about the man, and as her first foray into a new career path: comics.
Creator: Beth Barnett
Graphic memoir is at its most compelling when it surprises audiences and helps them make connections between the events of a life and the person delivering them. For Barnett, T.E. Lawrence’s life resonates in a variety of ways: his curiosity, his sexuality, his tenderness and his eagerness to learn above all else feature heavily and successfully in “Dreamers of the Day.” Barnett uses the linear thread of her trip unspooling over days and locations to pepper us with details about the man with the self-professed desire to share what fascinates her the most about him and inspire us to feel the same.
Barnett’s style is approachable and deceptively simple. She employs a largely economical line and a gentle, uneven hand to make the book feel like we’re peeking into a journal rather than an intentional memoir. There’s nothing that’s not intentional here, however, and Barnett’s thoughtfulness bleeds off the page and around us like a warm blanket on a cold day. Illustrations are placed with care, often minimal and fading to make room for text, and Barnett’s self-portraits are endearing and often quite amusing as she struggles to find time to visit every museum she wants to visit and go through every document she wants to see. This naked view of scholarship and its uncertainties is rare and welcome, both in the narrative as a parallel to uncovering Lawrence’s complex life and to readers to whom academia may seem sterile or sewn up.
As for Lawrence? The picture of the man isn’t quite as grandiose or epic as Hollywood would have us believe, and though many details of his life remain frustratingly out of reach, Barnett’s forays into his correspondence and personal writing reveal a sensitive and complex man whose awareness of the tragedy of colonial meddling in the Middle East is especially poignant now. Barnett delves into historical territory with a recounting of the Sykes-Picot agreement and a bit about how the Saudis rose to power in the region to give context to Lawrence’s presence there and let readers draw their own conclusions. Though Lawrence fought against the inevitable, his entree into the region was made possible because of the war and foreign intrusion in what is now Saudi Arabia, and we’re not meant to forget this. But he went, and saw, and did, and the book’s epigraph rings true.
Nestled within the thorns of colonial conquest and tragedy are Lawrence’s personal relationships, and these are part of what makes “Dreamers of the Day” really sing. Barnett details his deep friendships, especially with Dahoum, with clarity and tenderness in equal measure with some gentle cartooning. Like the Barnett present in the narrative, Dahoum’s face is often cheerful, vibrant and full of hope, and the Lawrence here is clearly smitten (though to what extent is unclear.) The page that follows is a mirror of the black page documenting Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder earlier, and that visual marker of tragedy makes Barnett’s measured lettering land even harder.
The parallel here is Barnett’s journey far from home and her loved ones into the creative unknown, and Barnett keeps that parallel from becoming too explicit until this moment. The two pages that follow are a perfect emotional beat in the story in their simplicity and marriage of the black background, architectural details and wavy balloons. Barnett’s kinship to Lawrence in this moment feels earned and poignant, and her uncertainty in her endeavor all the more relatable as, across a century, we see Lawrence struggling with direction and identity.
Lawrence lost and gained much in his brief life. Barnett’s methodical journey through his effects chronicles these peaks and valleys with the clarity of a historian and the sensitivity of an artist. This book’s chock full of small visual details that measure out her journey as much as Lawrence’s, from the top-down views of her various meals to the Syrian-inspired designs that flow through the latter half of the text. A few pages here and there suffer from crowding, but Barnett and Lawrence remain visual touchstones we can depend on for clarity throughout.
“Dreamers of the Day” is the best kind of graphic memoir because it is singular – no one else could tell this story, or tell it the way Barnett does with such personal passion and delight, and it’s worth experiencing based on the fascinating lives chronicled within. That it’s done with such artistic skill, flair and accessibility is a major bonus.
The Verdict: 9/10 – “Dreamers of the Day” is an effective, compelling and touching graphic memoir that gives insight into its author through its focus, points of interest and gentle inquiry.