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Fleen Book Corner: Dreamers Of The Day

It might be easier to start this book review by talking about what it isn’t before we get to what it is. Dreamers Of The Day is not a biography, or an autobiography; it’s the story of a particularly meaningful week for one person, the story of finding a creative purpose that may require years before the itch is satisfied (but which, I’ll suspect, will never disappear). It’s the story of one cartoonist starting down a long path that will lead, fates willing, to a trilogy of biographies about one of the most compelling, important, and misuderstood figures of the Twentieth Century.

It’s also about the Sykes-Picot Agreement and its aftermath, but more about the author’s relationship across nearly a century’s remove with one of the few prominent (and one would argue, informed) people to loudly criticize the Sykes-Picot Agreement at the time.

Beth Barnett is a cartoonist I met in Juneau, Alaska this past April. She knows more than anybody I know, cares more than anybody you know, about a certain historical personage that we will refer to, as Barnett does, as TE. The world remembers him as Lawrence of Arabia, but as Barnett explains, he used a variety of names and legally changed his to TE Shaw. Despite these clear wishes, he was buried under a grave marker that read TE Lawrence, leading Barnett to observe I find it strange and uncaring that he was buried under a name he did not consider his own.

It’s hard, with our current ideas of identity, not to see this as a case of deadnaming, and equally hard not to see the parallels to TE’s sexuality … gay, celibate or ace? … from the few biographical glimpses (be patient, the graphic trilogy will be here one day); it appears that a search for identity and a way to describe himself was a key part of TE’s life. Compare to Barnett’s own search to find a way to describe herself, and it’s hard not to conclude that part of Barnett’s fascination with TE is rooted in a sense of finding a kindred spirit.

Dreamers Of The Day (the title being a quote from TE) is Barnett’s remembrance of a too-brief week spent in Oxford doing research for her forthcoming explorations of TE’s life. It’s a conversation with herself about what she’s undertaking, what TE’s life and experiences mean to her, and what she wishes to accomplish, It’s an outline of an outline of the work to come, a working-out of the personal feelings so that planned biographies can focus on their subject in all the detail they deserve.

The art is minimal in a way that drives focus and lends importance to Barnett’s thoughts. Figures and locations are conjured up from a blank background when they add context to the narrative, disappearing back into the aether when no longer needed. It’s not lack of skill or laziness that drives the presence of so much white space, but rather necessity — if there’s no need to ground her point in a particular place, Barnett (or TE, or whomever) can address us from that empty space that we may better pay attention to what they’re saying¹.

There is a certain, floppy-haired similarity between TE and Barnett which comes through in the art — as the book progresses (and she becomes more comfortable in her trip), Barnett’s hair becomes progressively less frazzled, and her resemblance to TE becomes more pronounced (particularly in one panel as an imagined, future Oxford-PhD Barnett, decked out in vest and bowtie). The difference between Barnett and teenage TE is negligible and even adult TE is differentiated mostly by a military jacket and a buzzed undercut. I do not suggest there is obsession or imitation here, but more of a parallel resonance … what feels right to Barnett oftentimes echoes choices TE made about how he presented himself to the world.

In the end, Dreamers Of The Day is the story of one cartoonist and the fascinating soldier-archeologist-scholar-artist-writer-book designer-diplomat-translator that has grabbed hold of her imagination. It’s the story of the thing you must share with the world, and what it’s like to stand on the brink of actually being able to do so. It’s enlightening, educational, a bit melancholy, and a lot hopeful, and I recommend it to anybody that’s ever wanted to grab another person and say Hey, look at this and maybe you’ll love it as much as I do.

A PDF copy of Dreamers Of The Day was provided by the author for review. It debuts on Saturday, 14 September at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland, where Barnett will be at table E4A.

Spam of the day:

Garytyrrell, FedEx International Ticket No.9648 An email containing confidential personal information was sent to you

>sigh< Look, if you’re going to try to impersonate FedEx, at least get the friggin’ logo correct. It’s only one of the most recognized on the planet, and when you screw up the kerning it’s an instant giveaway. Friggin’ amateurs, I swear.

¹ It reminds me of McCloud’s observations about the shifting presence/absence of detail in manga.

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