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Life, Death, and Daytripper


I recently finished Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá’s graphic novel, daytripper. Now, I’m here with some thoughts on it.

There’s no questioning that daytripper is a beautiful book. The drawing style is detailed, not fixated on realism but authenticity–designed to give every place a sense of purpose and identity. The color scheme is often muted, sometimes ethereal, evoking the quality of a watercolor effect. This fits perfectly, as the book itself presents a nonlinear trip through the memories of its protagonist, Brás de Oliva Domingos.

Brás is a writer of obituaries, so the business of life and death is his livelihood. More than anything, he wants to be an accomplished novelist, and he waits for his first novel, Silken Eyes, to take off and change his life forever. But there’s a twist: at different points in the story, Brás’ life takes an unexpected turn in which he dies, at which point an obituary for that version of Brás is presented. What if he died as a child? What if he died as his own son was being born? What if he died in a senseless robbery? daytripper is a book about the choices that make us who we are, about risk and reward, life and death, family and friendship.

It is Brás’ family and friends who help illustrate who he is through the course of the story. His father is himself an accomplished writer–a legacy that Brás is eager to live up to. His best friend is Jorge. The two met in college and it’s evident that Brás envies his friend’s more carefree approach to life. Brás himself is always more serious, more concerned with making something of himself. This obsession leads to conflict with his wife, Ana, who grows weary of holding their lives together and caring for their son, Miguel, while Brás is busy entertaining his own identity crises.

Brás rarely seems to value his work, no matter how often his boss and coworkers assure him that he is providing necessary closure to the families of those who’ve perished. This becomes especially pointed when he is asked to cover the aftermath of a plane crash, and must write touching obituaries for each of the victims. He derides his own work as false and impersonal, guilting himself over the fact that he’s forced to write personal narratives about people he never met.

What this is really all about is Brás’ search for meaning, which is not fulfilled until the book’s conclusion. His various imaginary deaths contrasted with his real one as an old man bring together the book’s themes: the other versions of Brás died because they dared, because they took risks, because they seized life without regard for the consequences. The real Brás, on the other hand, sees the meaning of his life as expressed through his son, Miguel. In effect, he doesn’t find true satisfaction with his life until he reaches the end of it and can fully relate to his own father’s perspective.

Thematically, this is interesting stuff, but I wish the book did more with it. The character portraits also aren’t terribly intimate, either. Characters outside of Brás rarely seem to possess any depth. Brás himself is emotionally reserved most of the time, and I don’t know whether that’s a stylistic choice by the creators or perhaps an expression of Brazilian cultural norms. It’s more contemplative than emotionally raw.

For the most part, Brás’ relationships with men take precedence. It is his friendship with Jorge that compels him to impulsively leave his life behind in search of his best friend. He is obsessed with stepping out from his father’s shadow. His alienation from his son is constantly on his mind. Meanwhile, the two prominent women in his life serve a dual purpose: first as wish fulfillment in terms of how he imagines romantic relationships, and later as reality checks when he realizes the hard work such relationships require. I wish that those had been explored in more depth, but almost everything here consists of disconnected vignettes that construct a thematic rather than narrative dialogue.

Overall, daytripper presents like a series of dreams, of meditations on the nature of life and its choices. It takes Brás his entire life to understand that those choices were the entire point–that the whole time he was fixated on reaching some destination, he was missing everything happening around him. Another theme is spelled out, as well, a bit clumsily in my opinion, right at the end: that the birth of a child means the end of one’s own independent life, and the obligation of the parent’s life to the child. Once the child is old enough to not need his or her parents anymore, the parents themselves become useless and purposeless. The book offers this almost like a revelatory zen, but the implications strike me as more nihilistic. They also don’t seem to add up to Brás’ portrayal in earlier parts of the book.

Another way of looking at it is that the ending is abrupt. Apart from the very end, daytripper covers the protagonist’s life from childhood through midlife, with a focus on what’s most likely his 30s and 40s. Then, we skip ahead 20 years or so, to when his son is an established adult. What happened in the intervening years? What happened to the conflict between Brás and Ana? Indeed, he and his wife seem quite content in their old age. It makes much of the rest of the story appear to be red herrings meant to distract us from the true message that shines through at the end.

I end up seeing daytripper as less than the sum of its parts. Beautiful artwork and interesting vignettes with an effort at tying it all together at the end which mostly falls flat. Even so, I would rather the creators aim high and miss than settle for anything less ambitious. This is a graphic novel that is almost entirely grounded in real experiences–there are no superheroes to be found here, just a dash of magical realism. It is commendable at the very least for daring to be different and to elevate the graphic novel as an art form. While it may not be entirely successful as a story, it’s a worthy effort in the medium.