Years of the Elephant
Writer/Artist - Willy Linthout
Publisher - PonentMon
Humans, we get on with it. Whatever befalls us, we tend to do our best to get back to our comfortable routine, what we do well or enjoy doing. Tragedy strikes, and before long the baseball player is back on the diamond, the actor out of the house and back making movies, the guitarist back playing the blues. In a couple of those occupations, I’m picturing real people, real men who suffered the ultimate horror of outliving a child. And now we have Willy Linthout, Flemish cartoonist, opened his front door to neighbors informing him his own son had jumped to his death from the roof of their apartment building. This is how Years of the Elephant begins, and from that point on it chronicles Linthout’s struggles to hold onto his sanity in the face of terrible grief, guilt and regret.
Linthout’s career up to this point was primarily as a humor cartoonist, so his dumpy, goggle-eyed little everyman is at first disconcerting: is this how one honors a dead son, with old hat cartooning tricks like worry lines and beads of sweat shooting off the character’s forehead? Linkhout mitigates his standard style by leaving the pages in pencil form, emphasizing their urgency. The reader understands this is not about craft but about catharsis, and so much can be forgiven if not every sequence sings or flows seamlessly into the other.
Much of the book is a series of hallucinogenic episodes, Linthout’s grief attacking his mind in different ways. He sees multiple versions of his insensitive boss. The chalk outline of his son’s body appears before him, while his son’s spirit seems to be trying to communicate to him in Morse code. He acts out in ways understandable but also shocking, even criminal. He takes longer to start to pull through than many, his delusions involving his son bringing him some small measure of comfort that may be lost if he starts to heal. There is no truly accurate timetable for the stages of grief, and so there was probably not much of an outline for the book. It takes as long as it takes. It’s a harrowing journey where hope takes a long time to appear, but eventually it’s there, in as simple a gesture as slightly changing the art style to represent the passing of something.