By David Lester. Arbeiter Ring, 310 pp, softcover
Vancouver’s David Lester has been poised between art and activism for his entire career, so it’s a natural subject of inquiry for his first graphic novel, The Listener. In the ’80s, the Mecca Normal guitarist was rustling up cut ’n’ paste fliers for concerts supporting the Squamish Five. More recently, Lester produced his Inspired Agitators poster series, depicting figures like Paul Robeson and Nellie McClung. So it’s not insignificant that Lester’s main character in The Listener, Louise, is working on a sculpture of the Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno when we first meet her. Meanwhile, a man falls to his death from the Woodward’s building, inspired by Louise’s art to undertake a grand but fatal act of political protest.
And so begins Louise’s guilt-crippled bike tour through Europe, where she ruminates on courage, responsibility, and the intersection of politics and aesthetics. Eventually, she meets a haunted German couple who tell her about their peripheral role in Hitler’s rise to power, and Lester splices his tale with the real history of a little-known election that assured the Nazi Party’s ascendance. The book is far from over, but the section climaxes with the future Fí¼hrer quietly sketching Eva Braun while a murder—gut-wrenchingly rendered—takes place on his behalf.
Even at 300 pages, The Listener is engaging enough to devour in one extended visit to your favourite East Side coffee joint. If the text is occasionally too dry, it’s still packed with fascinating detail, as in Louise’s interior monologue on Picasso’s Massacre in Korea. She prefers it to Guernica, she thinks, because of the courage it took to “paint an anti-U.S. military image in the conservative ’50s.” This acquires resonance when you consider that Lester’s seven-year project began as the U.S. rolled into Iraq.
Most importantly, Lester’s monochrome panels are lovely, bringing an emotional payload to all that heavy subject matter—quite powerfully in a couple of places. A timeline of Nazi history is included, up to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2010 admission that America granted protection to Nazi war criminals. It further seals the case that this affecting and thoughtful debut belongs on any grown-up comic bookshelf that also includes, say, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Alan Moore and Joyce Brabner’s Iran-Contra history, Brought to Light.