We Can Still Be Friends by Mawil
Published by Blank Slate
Do you remember the absolute torment of being young? If so, no doubt you also remember those moments when the girl of your dreams, the girl who fills every moment in your thought, the girl you want to lean over and tell you she loves you actually looks you in the eye and utters those five horrible words: “We Can Still Be Friends”. Your heart breaks, your world collapses and suddenly you’re destined to watch her fall in love with someone else.
This is the basis of Mawil’s quite exquisite book We Can Still Be Friends. He tells us four stories of bittersweet romantic failure from key points in his young life, starting with first love at church, through unrequited love at school and on, to university and failing to find love in a Berlin tower block squat. That first chapter is short yet very sweet and presents the author’s first love as a simple, innocent thing, doing all the stupid things we do as children for our first love. And the spot on observations of behaviour continue throughout the book. How many of us have spent hours desperately trying to work up the courage to show the object of our affections how much she means to us? I have and I can recognise every stupid thing I ever did in Mawil’s writing here. It also functions as an interesting catalogue of Mawil’s non-romantic life, whether it’s his annual cycling trip to the Baltic or his experiences of squatting for a summer in a Berlin towerblock. This final chapter highlights the cosmopolitan nature of Berlin, with the towerblock a complete melting pot of different nationalities, living as part of an artistic commune. And of course, throughout it all, our hero struggles gamely to find love, falling for girl after girl and every time being spurned in some way.
The whole book is told in a relaxed, easy going conversational style and each chapter is broken up with an older Mawil sitting round a table with some friends and a few beers as he lists his fomantic failures. Of course, most of the time, his friends, being men mange to merely point out his failure and make fun of him, albeit in a friendly, sympathetic manner:
Mawil’s artwork matches his easy going relaxed storytelling with an organic and flowing line. So much so that anatomy alters, bones bend, bodies relax and flow. It’s a fantastic style and is ideally suited to this relaxed and genuine tale of growing older, but not necessarily wiser. But in amongst the kinetic style there are profound touches. Mawil has a way with his artwork to make the tiniest detail really jump out from a page. It’s so cleverly done that it only registered on a second reading. Take this page:
When I first read it I was taken with the page and how the object of Mawil’s affections is so obviously lovely yet I didn’t stop to analyse it at the time. On going back I realise it was Mawil’s clever work as an artist that made me as a reader look at the girl with the same sense of affection that the young Mawil does. The whole sequence reads so beautifully true, the awkwardness of it all, the longing Mawil feels and the way he suddenly sees her framed in that sixth panel. Perfection. Simple enough on the page but it takes a great artist to pull something so simply effective off. Mawil does it time and again throughout this book.
He also cleverly manipulates his panel layouts, most often employing a strict 9 panel grid, but occasionally breaking out to delightful effect; most obviously in the panel below where he shows us a perfectly designed overhead shot of the friends framed within the 9 panel structure:
Obviously, my US influenced comics brain automatically starts to think of in in comparison to Joe Matt, Chester Brown, Jeffrey Brown and the autobiog cartoonists I know best. And they see a kindred spirit in Mawil as well, given the glowing quotes on the back cover:
“Beautiful cartooning that captures the energy, awkwardness and freedom of youth and romantic infatuation,” Joe Matt.
“If only Mawil was as good with the girls as he is a cartoonist then we wouldn’t have these fun stories about how he isn’t any good with the girls. Which is good for us readers, I guess, and if Mawil’s adolescent love life had to suffer for the greater good, I’m okay with that. Thank you, Mawil,” Jeffrey Brown.
And it’s a very safe bet that if you’re already a fan of the autobiographical genre you’ll love Mawil’s We Can Still Be Friends. But I think he’s better than the US cartoonists simply because his artistic range seems broader. He’s produced a fine work of observational comic autobiography but never once falls into maudlin despair. This books are about how horrible life can be and how it can be so hard to find that right moment and that right girl. Yet, amazingly given the subject matter, you walk away from this book feeling incredibly positive, full of the possibilities the young Mawil sees in the end. It’s a great trick to deliver in a book about failed love, but Mawil does it beautifully. It’s an excellent book, funny, sentimental in all the right ways, introspective without becoming mawkish or despairing and some fabulous, fluid artwork. Definitely recommended.
(Go for it. Which pretty much sums up the book’s message, Mawil prefers a path of hopefulness in his love stories. And We Can Still Be Friends is all the better for it.)
But thinking about Mawil has made me wonder. How many of these fantastic European gems are just sitting there, untranslated and lost to us English speaking only folks? Mawil is hugely popular in his native Germany, but this is just the second time we’ve seen his work in this country and in English (the first was Beach Safari in 2003 from Top Shelf).
It’s always been a strange quirk of British comic reading that we have more in common with our American friends across the Atlantic than we have with neighbours across 21 miles of thin English Channel. Hopefully the ongoing publication schedule of Blank Slate Books will be able to begin to redress this ridiculous imbalance. There’s a world of quality cartooning available to us, why not make We Can Still Be Friends your entry to the wonderful world of European comics?
We Can Still Be Friends is the second release, following Oliver East’s excellent Trains Are … Mint from Blank Slate books. Our own Kenny Penman, one of the founders of Blank Slate Books has expressed his love for great European comics many times on this blog and is making good his desire to see more of these gems get an English translation. Their blog has recently announced details of the next wave of books, including more Mawil. The author also has his own website.
Richard Bruton has written an awful lot of reviews for the FPI blog, but tellingly this is the first European comics review he’s done so far. It won’t be the last.