A review of Kaspar by Diane Obomsawin

Published on May 1, 2009

Diane Obomsawin

Drawn & Quarterly

Diane Obomsawin’s Kaspar is a graphic novel that deals with a historical misfit; the cartoonists eschews naturalism, adopting instead what, at first glance, appear to be an awkward illustrative style. Kaspar is the story of Kaspar Hauser, a young man who, after being raised by his father in complete isolation from any social contact, is found wandering the streets of Nuremberg in the nineteenth century. The author draws from a number of published sources to create a first-person narrative from the perspective of Kaspar himself.

The deceptively simple faux-naïf storytelling technique used by Obomsawin is a perfect match for Kaspar’s odd primal mentality. The narrative achieves moments of startling tenderness. Although Obomsawin’s tone is wry, she never ridicules or judges her bizarre protagonist. We see the world as the historical Kaspar, lacking even the most basic knowledge, presumably did: strange, alienating, scary, and full of wonder, beauty, and randomness.

Alas, Obomsawin sometimes betrays her own premise, which weakens the impact of the story she is telling. It becomes difficult to know just which story she is trying to tell: Kaspar’s own experience? Or is she presenting Kaspar from the perspective of the people who encounter him? These are different stories, and they cannot be depicted in the same manner.

From the first panel Obomsawim sets up clearly that Kaspar is telling the story. At first everything is inexplicable, but slowly the world around Kaspar begins to make sense, and we share in his discovery. The effect is magical. However, when Obomsawin strays from Kaspar’s point of view the result is jarring. Inserting such scenes, from which Kaspar is absent, in the same visual style as Kaspar’s narration breaks the tale’s focus. Had she not chosen to have Kaspar narrate, these “dreambreakers” (to use an apt expression coined by David Lynch) might not have been so disruptive. Storytelling is a fragile contract between artist and audience, and here the author breaks the contract that she has accepted.

The story hints at the philosophical themes, so prevalent at the time, of human nature versus human civilization but never fully engages with these ideas, which, one infers, must preoccupy the people who interact with Kaspar.

Nevertheless, it’s to Obomsawin’s credit that her book is significant and worthy enough to inspire such criticism and such desire for it to fully achieve its potential. mRb

Claude Lalumière is the author of the forthcoming collection "Objects of Worship" and editor of eight anthologies including "Tesseracts Twelve: New Novellas of Canadian Fantastic Fiction."



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