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Notes on the Legacy of Kim Thompson

by Tahneer Oksman
Reviews Editor, Graphic Narratives

Our memories are assembled out of images: snapshots that, however inaccurate or obscure, act as portals to the past, the events and experiences that touch us. We might turn those images into stories, combining what we tell ourselves and what others have told us, but what we are really doing is composing mosaics out of fragments. The possibilities are endless.

Graphic narratives have the unique ability to combine this narrativizing element with the fragment of the image. And it is such a tactile expression – built out of human scribble, of hands creating lines on the page. Drawing the other, drawing the self, is a form of touch.

Henry Steinberg recently reviewed Anders Nilsen’s The End, a book he wrote as he mourned his fiancé, Cheryl Weaver, who died in 2005 after a long battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Steinberg writes of Nilsen,

“He has created ciphers for himself, and for her – in his state of abject grief it did not matter what they truly looked like. In his deliberate omission of detail there is a clarity that is brutally true to the experience of grieving a loved one, in this new world of sadness there is only man and woman, Anders and Cheryl.”

The image-text can help us access the unsayable as well as the unseeable. It is a space for playing and grieving, stirring and remembering, and it is also a space for longing, forgetting, and emptying. The mark is always read in relation to the clean white page.

“Nilsen is not carving lines into the earth as much as he is into his own flesh.”

His is a haptic elegy, a memorial built to commemorate their shared past.

Ulli Lust’s Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life is a memorial too, this one commemorating a lost self. This memoir recounts the story of a struggling young woman coming to terms with the world; it is the beginning of a portrait of an artist.

Both Nilsen and Lust evoke graphic narratives as aide-mémoires. As readers, they awaken us to our own pasts, stir our memories and longings as we experience the power of the visual to hint at what can never be recaptured, of lost time.

Both books too are memorials to Kim Thompson, co-publisher of Fantagraphics comics, who passed away last month after a brief battle with lung cancer. Not only did Thompson put many previously unknown but hugely talented artists on the map – Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, the Hernandez brothers, to name a few – but he translated a number of international works, like Lust’s, on his own.

The power of these works – each, in their own ways, celebrations of life – is a tribute to his vision and his legacy.