How do you remember the last three years of your life? Can you recall conversations in their entirety? The clothes you wore each day of the week? For most of us, that’s impossible; our memories are arranged in snapshots. Certain moments resonate with us: comments made between friends, or the first time you ate at a restaurant, but not the next twelve times. This frustrating rule governs Canadian cartoonist Rebecca Kraatz’s Snaps (Conundrum Press), a graphic novel that debuted at Toronto’s Comic Arts Festival last May.
Snaps‘s inspiration was a box of old photos, shot during the 1940s, that Kraatz found at a flea market. “I studied the unknown people in the pictures,” she explains in her introduction, “often with a magnifying glass, trying to decipher their relationships with one another.” The result of this acute analysis takes place in Victoria, British Columbia, but save for a handful of references you would be hard pressed to notice. More importantly, it follows a cast of over two dozen during the Second World War, book-ended by enlistee Gordon’s departure from home to serve overseas and his impending arrival home. Each character gets only a couple of pages to tell his or her story until the point of view switches to someone else – some stories are related, while others stand completely on their own.
The breadth and variety of the people we meet in Snaps is shocking, often telling stories in a scant two pages with surprising emotion and power. And that’s often how we remember things, isn’t it? The pivotal moments and the echos of those moments we still feel to this day. Gordon makes this obvious in the first vignette, as he spends his last day on home soil with his girlfriend Lena: “I can’t remember certain details. The pattern of the drapes escapes me.” We next hear from Lena her memories on the day she sees Gordon off at the train platform, and the images she remembers most vividly.
It continues in this fashion, and in some cases we see how different characters remember the same day. Kraatz’s art tells us at least as much about these people as the words. Characters wear their expressions on their faces, perhaps because that’s exactly how we remember ourselves when looking back – though you might be occasionally terrified by their piercing gazes. The fashion and backdrops of the 1940s are charming but unobtrusive, unless they want to be. A few plots, including one that takes place on a navy ship, give a haunting picture of what it’s like to live with your loved ones on the other side of an ocean during wartime. Kraatz’s dives into the surreal, like Albin’s stroll into his future, are as enchanting as they are absurd.
My main complaint is that the snapshots we get of these characters can become as cloudy as actual memories. The handful of storylines that continue throughout the book are shown intermittently, through several characters’ viewpoints. It might take several reads to get a handle on everything that takes place in Snaps – and while the act of poring through the pages like Kraatz did with the original photographs are rewarding, at first it can be disorienting.
In spite of the large ensemble cast and its dalliance with the nonsensical, Snaps contains stories that will hit many readers at home with their everyday joys and horrors.