Review: Two Brothers
“Two Brothers has risen to be one of the best graphic novels of the year, thanks in no small part to two creators who intimately understand both the storytelling process and what it means to be brothers themselves.”
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Writers/Artists: Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba’
Release Date: Wed, Oct 27, 2015
Growing up with three brothers, all of varying ages, I am acutely and intimately aware of the various inter-fraternal dynamics between siblings, the different pairings and groupings among them, and how brothers come together clash depending on age, station, or even time of day. Those dynamics can become even more fraught with conflict based on how each brother interacts with and is regarded by their parents. Good parents love their children, and may even love their children equally, but that does not mean that that love doesn’t manifest in unique ways.
Depicting those moving parts in a real and satisfying manner in fiction can be a high-wire act. If a tale examining these relationships is not handled with proper care, one brother ultimately becomes painted as a villain, the broken one, the changeling. A neglectful mother or a stern father, He! She! was the one who made the wayward son turn sour. So many authors choose to substitute nuance in favor of drama, and the result usually leaves the reader with a rote copy of a copy.
I don’t have children of my own, but I’ve been one of four brothers going into my fourth decade, and I can tell you with unreserved certainty that Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba’, twin brothers themselves, without a doubt, understand those truths and understand them well. That insight serves them immeasurably in their graphic novel Two Brothers for Dark Horse Comics, an adaptation of Milton Hatoum’s novel The Brothers.
Twin brothers Yaqub and Omar have been separated by countries and time for many years, but when Yaqub returns to Brazil after growing up abroad in Lebanon, the stark differences between the brothers might suggest that they haven’t been apart for long enough. Yaqub carries the emotional and physical wounds from his last encounter with Omar, and it becomes markedly clear that the two’s different approaches to life and levels of maturation since will do little to close the chasm between them. Through a series of flashbacks, it becomes clear that their rift isn’t merely the result of two quarreling brothers, but of strained familial bonds, questionable parental decisions, and the need for efficacy of self.
During an interview with FreakSugar, Ba’ and Moon recounted that Two Brothers took years to complete, and it’s clear that the tale is a labor of love and of deep personal connection to the source material. While the book clocks in at over 200 pages, Two Brothers never feels like a laborious read in the least; on the contrary, every page turn left me with a hitch in my breath, alternately reluctant and anxious to discover what comes next. Tackling such a beloved novel as The Brothers for a comic book adaptation is a significant undertaking, as the Brazilian novel has a bevy of fervent admirers. However, Ba’ and Moon not only seem to appreciate that seemingly Sisyphean task, but embrace it, judiciously and lovingly paying homage to the novel while making the comic book uniquely their own. Their efforts have resulted in a work that uses Hatoum’s words to create a lyrical story that washes over the reader with both a beauty and melancholy.
Much of that mood is owed to the art of Two Brothers, which needs to be savored slowly to fully appreciate. The brothers employ every line and image of the graphic novel with inordinate care, from the lush countryside of Brazil to the family’s manor. This deliberate, methodical approach bleeds into Ba’ and Moon’s artistic sensibilities and how they were applied to Two Brothers, as every decision as to the look and feel of how they chose to adapt the tale seems measured and well-considered, as if even the slightest hiccup would be doing an injustice to the source material.
The comic book medium is one that is able to do what few other media can accomplish. What many outsiders looking in sometimes do not realize, but what long-time comic book readers have known for quite some time, is that the sequential art and storytelling in a comic book, when done correctly, can speed up and slow down the pacing of a scene with just the right execution of and placement of lines and words or lack thereof. Lines and use of space can evoke tone and atmosphere, highlighting or obscuring that atmosphere and tone as needed to serve the story and the audience. What Moon and Ba’ have effected with Two Brothers is taken Hatoum’s beloved and beautiful prose and doesn’t seek to supersede or replace it, but carefully pick and choose which prose and dialogue to use and which dialogue and prose can be conveyed instead with the right shadow and brushstrokes.
This thoughtful use of art is especially present in how Ba’ and Moon present the state of mind of the boys’ mother Zana, a state deeply impacted by the alternating quiet and turmoil present in her family’s home. In scenes where she is particularly ebullient—see the family dinner after Yaqub returns from Lebanon, for example—the linework from the creators comes across as particularly crisp and clear, with heavy inks making for an atmosphere in which it’s evident that Zana feels most rooted in reality when surrounded by her loved ones. However, with every blight that mars her home, Ba’ and Moon reflect that chaos and unease with lines that don’t quite connect, that feel disjointed and are subtly erratic. Of note is one instance in which she reflects on the loss of a loved one toward the end of the tale, where she looks at pictures in a scene that feels deliberately incomplete, mirroring her loss and unanchored soul.
Similarly, the thoughtfulness in this process of when and how to use which lines is particularly brought to the fore whenever Yaqub and Omar encounter one another. When the brothers first encounter one another upon Yaqub’s return to Brazil, their face-to-face is drawn with subtle lines that lean toward the side of realism. The brothers are dispassionate, holding in whatever feelings they might hold for one another, and their demeanors reflect that emotion. However, when Omar and Yaqub come to blows, Ba’ and Moon use exaggerated, sweeping lines to make the brothers seem larger-than-life, as if their conflict is every brother’s conflict stretching forward and backward in time, while still keeping the reader’s eyes on this particular instance.
As much as the deliberate use of varying linework and shading has served to create the mood and tension among all members of the family at the center of Two Brothers, just as important is how thoughtfully Ba’ and Moon decide how, where, and when not to include ink to the page, instead allowing blank and negative space to tell pieces of their tale. Again, when the brothers see one another for the first time in years, the blank canvas in the background is suffocating, indicating too many words left unsaid and feelings unexpressed. The space fills with the years that have separated the two.
Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba’s Two Brothers has risen to be one of the best graphic novels of the year, thanks in no small part to two creators who intimately understand both the storytelling process and what it means to be brothers themselves. In 22 years of comic book reading, few tales have left me so entertained, so introspective, so heartbroken, and so enthralled.
Two Brothers is on sale now.