Though they may both goose bump your skin and send shivers down your spine a good song can haunt you for far longer than any ghost or graveyard ghoul, with a single plucked note or plaintive melody it can get in your head and stay there forever; the moans and cries of the chords swaying your thoughts so strongly at first that it evokes an fearsome emotional reaction, then so subtly that you don’t even notice it is still dragging you along. Though it may prey on some of the same fears and pressures as your average Indian graveyard poltergeist a song’s relationship with your past is where it differs, it exists not to niggle at your demons but to excise them and capture that catharsis in a pseudo time capsule that you can constantly revisit. It is then a positive link to the past, one that makes even the most miserable of memories bearable if not enjoyable; this is the magic of music and this is the phenomena that a phenomenal little book called Gone To Amerikay attempts to capture and contextualise.
As the cadence of the title suggests Amerikay is an inherently Irish story (though writer Derek McCullough is not himself a Gaelic gentleman) that is built around the folk music of the Irish people and the way in which they use the time-capsule capability of song to construct a coherent cultural heritage, even in the midst of mass deportation. Interestingly it is not until the final page of the book that we actually set foot in Ireland, the story instead takes place on three different sets of New York streets – Eighteen-ninety, Nineteen-Sixty and Twenty Ten – telling in each time the tale of a recently landed Irish immigrant whose lives are shaped by song: A pseudo-single mother bound for the crime ridden Five-Points, A gay musician destined for the stages of Greenwich Village and a modern millionaire who is following in their footsteps. Though I may have made it sound dry the book is actually very compelling: its part period piece, part mystery, part rock biopic and all deep social drama that skims along at an easy pace thanks in most part to it being of the painted, panelled medium.
The book’s art style seems at first to be quite simple, a plain rendition of reality with clean lines and colours, but as the book goes on Colleen Doran’s compositions become more and more bold with multiple renditions of each character merging together in single splash pages; it’s abstract sure, but the style never strays too far from the reality required of the story. What really impressed me was how much I didn’t need to pay attention to the specific intricacies of each panel; normally in a situation like this some study would be required to know just where and when we were at any given time and though these details are there if you want to look for them – the costumes and construction seem meticulously researched, allowing you to believe inherently in each world – there is never a need, the context is always instantly clear and that is a rare thing indeed.
Unfortunately though these transitions actually felt a mite too seamless to me, they lacked the wit or punch that I expect from such a set-up as instead of providing a point of inherent internal connection between the different streams the switch over from one to the other simply occurs without any kind of interaction. It’s almost as if the stories were written separately and then simply shuffled together in random chunks. I understand that it is best to leave the literal connections veiled until the climax in order to maintain the mystery, and the book does come together quite well in the end, but I would definitely have liked more meaningful and metaphorical juxtapositions to be made between the three threads as they progressed; why else would you have them intercut if not for this reason? That said this is more an issue of personal preference than an actual error of any kind; I happen to enjoy the contrived construction of a meaningful metaphor but others will likely prefer the more natural style of the story as it stands.
Similarly I have to wonder if the pages of a comic book are the ideal place for this story to be presented. Sequential art favours visual storytelling over all else – you can after all quite easily still have a coherent comic without dialogue or narration, though one without art would be a stretch – and this is very much a verbal and oft audio centric tale. Characters sing as much, if not more than they speak – either way they certainly say a lot more through their songs than they do their words – as this is the only way that they can communicate what’s inside, though I fear some of what they are saying is lost in translation thanks to the fact that we can never actually hear their songs ourselves. I recently praised Mark Waid’s Daredevil and Justin Randall’s Changing Ways for their individual achievements in evoking audio through art, but even these two efforts, arguably the best, are only echoes of real sound: How much more haunting would this tale have been if we could have actually heard the title track or the sorrowful “Ciara’s Song”?
Again this is meant less as a criticism and more as an invitation to conversation. For as funny, as gripping and as emotional as the book is Gone to Amerikay feels less like entertainment than it does art; it is without a doubt one of the most “important” books of the year and so it need bare being treated like one. “Important” though is an interesting term when seen in the subjective; important, to whom? Though this is an inherently Irish story on the surface, deep down it is much more universal than that: it is also a look at the immigrant experience irregardless of race, a mediation on what it is to be any American or any person, one also on love regardless of gender but mostly it is as aforementioned a celebration of our musical culture and stories as a whole: It’s not death, it’s everything before and after and we must learn it all, let it all in and remember it. A powerful message and one that an art-lover like myself can get behind even though its vessel is flawed and thus fails to haunt me like the songs it speaks of.