“and somehow / giving to all her questions just one answer: / In you, who were a child once—in you.”
–”Die Erwachsene / The Grown Up,” Rainer Maria Rilke trans. by Stephen Mitchell.
Please don’t let Rilke scare you off. Jim McCann and Janet Lee’s Return of the Dapper Men (Archaia, 2010) is a thoroughly well-done and delightful book. It has an easy charm and a little melancholy. And there’s a forward by Tim Gunn paired with Lee’s portrait of the already dapper man as a Dapper Man. There’s just something about it that reminds me of Rilke’s poetry—the wonder and pain of change, the unfolding of self, the unfurling of clockwork wings—but examined in a perfect fusion of graphic novel and picture book.
Time has stopped in Anorev, the world of Return of the Dapper Men, leaving an endless day for robots and ageless 11 year olds watched over by a broken Clockwork Angel and spied on from a house that almost flies. The people of Anorev have reached an impasse. There are no more possibilities for them until 314 identically mod dapper men fall from the sky. Ayden, a boy who asks questions, and Zoe, a silent robot girl, try to understand what has happened and to help Dapper Man 41 to put time right.
41 emphasizes the importance of timeliness, being in the right place at the right time. The book itself is timely—a little clockwork steampunk and Anglophilic; it’s a product of its time, but not likely to be dated. There are clear influences from Art Nouveau children’s books and 1960s Mod whimsy. 41 has a number not a name, but he seems a free man despite dressing a little like the Villagers in The Prisoner. He is much more like the Doctor in Doctor Who at his most charming and hopeful. He arrives in a flurry of seeming non-sequiturs, Things To Be Done and a drive for a good cup of tea.
And he sees something special, something transformative in Ayden and Zoe. With his green-tinted goggles and a messenger bag, Ayden seems a perfect companion for the Doctor. In her design, Zoe reminds me of classic lady robots with a destiny—das Maschinenmensch/ Futura / Machina from Fritz Lang and Theda von Harbou’s Metropolis or Tima from Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis. I
suppose it’s not surprising that dapper men would be Metropolitan, but Zoe is no robot fatale.
Despite all these influences from times past, Return of the Dapper Men doesn’t seem nostalgic. In fact, it might indirectly address the dangers of nostalgia. After all, nostalgia is often a yearning for a static time, an endless day, a never-ending moment. And Return of the Dapper Men offers a reminder that change is necessary for meaning or life or whatever you care to call it.
The book itself isn’t just timely in its style or influences; it has also appeared when the appeal of analog and handmade are being rediscovered. I enjoyed the immediacy, physicality and materiality of the art in Zombies vs. Robots, but I am ecstatic over it with Return of the Dapper Men. (As bad as “physicality” and “materiality” are, it could be worse; I could talk about Rilke’s “Things”).
Janet Lee’s art reminds me again of the power of physical materials. She uses techniques from fine art, picture book illustration and book art. Picture book illustration is pretty much the cutting edge of sequential art and it shows in her work. She uses a variety of materials, including markers, fine liners, wooden boards from the home supply store and Mod Podge, beloved of crafty ladies everywhere. It’s lovely to see what she can do with markers in particular. She uses them with great sensitivity. As an aside, I spent some time looking over the art, noting paper cut outs, marker strokes and what looked to be matte latex house paint. While it’s quite enjoyable to look at the art and wonder what she’s used and how, McCann explains Lee’s process in an appendix that is well-worth reading.
Working low tech gives Lee’s art a look that can’t be duplicated in the world of digital art, but we can experience it so immediately only because of digital printing. Older processes wouldn’t capture that single stray (cat?) hair embedded in her art, or pencil lines, marker strokes and house paint’s unique
surface, all of which add to the book’s warmth. In fact, not so long ago, all those things probably would’ve been considered flaws.
And so part of the wonder of the book for me is that through itself, in its writing, art and physical presence, Return of the Dapper Men encompasses in every way one of the lessons 41 shares: What we make with our time matters.
*Rilke’s original line from “Die Erwachsene”: “und irgendwie auf alle Fragen ihr / nur eine
Antwort vage wiedergebend: / In dir, du Kindgewesen, in dir.”
Carol Borden would like to write something clever and evocative but her fingers “are tired and words are tedious sometimes.”
Carol also received this book as a review copy from Archaia Press