Deal W. Hudson
June 21, 2009
Matthew Lickona is a Catholic writer who understands the new media, as a visit to his classy Website immediately attests. Already well-known for his book Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic (Loyola Press, 2006), Lickona also understands the changing habits of younger readers, which is why he has published the first chapter of his graphic novel, Alphonse: Untimely Ripp’d.
At a coffee bar in San Diego a few months ago, Lickona told me that he had noticed the steady expansion of the graphic novel section in local bookstores. “It was the only place where you could find readers under 30 hanging out to read books.”
A graphic novel is a “novelistic story told in sequential art,” Lickona told me when I pressed him for a definition. He also reminded me that one of my favorite recent movies – 300 – was adapted from a graphic novel written and illustrated by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.
The popularity of these novels among younger readers is undeniable – my own 20-year-old daughter reads them. However, Alphonse was the first graphic novel I’ve ever read. It begins with the story of a young woman, addicted to heroin, seeking an abortion at eight months. The doctor agrees to the procedure, over the objections of his nurse, using the justification that the mother is a junkie. When he begins the procedure and opens the mother’s womb, the baby – Alphonse – escapes the operating room and then the clinic, ending up in the arms of an abortion protester who takes him home.
Admittedly, the idea of a baby with abnormal strength (due to his mother’s drug abuse) escaping from an abortion clinic is a conceit the reader may struggle to accept, but Lickona and his illustrator, Chris Gugliotti, solve the problem by writing the unborn baby into the story. Alphonse is aware of what his mother intends to do: “Wake up… Get ready… It’s coming… I’ve seen it coming… ,” are the opening lines of the novel, and they belong to Alphonse.
Lickona agrees that using the baby’s voice creates a creepy atmosphere. “It’s a little bit of a horror story,” he explained and seemed pleased when I told him the visual style reminded me of Ridley Scott’s classic 1979 movie Alien. The subtitle for the completed novel, “A Monster for Our Times,” reminded me of Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus. People forget that Frankenstein is the doctor, and his creation is referred to only as the “creature” or the “monster.” Lickona’s “monster for our times” has a name and a voice but, like Shelley’s creature, fights to live in the face of a creator who wants to murder him.
The comparison with Frankenstein also underscores the advantage of this particular visual medium: Graphic novels engage the visual sense. “It’s like making a movie without a movie budget,” Lickona says.
I was intrigued by Lickona’s story and enjoyed studying the images to pick up parts of the narrative that were not contained in the text. It left me wanting to know what would happen to all the characters, especially the mother, whose parents would not answer the phone as she wept following the abortion; the doctor who feared media coverage of the escaped baby; and the woman who scooped up Alphonse from behind the garbage bins and sought heroin for the newborn’s addiction.
Alphonse: Untimely Ripp’d is being sold online only for $2.99, and Lickona asks his readers to support the cost of publishing the remaining chapters. All the money collected from book sales and donations will go to paying the illustrator and publishing costs. I encourage readers to buy a copy of Lickona’s first chapter, even if the idea of reading a graphic novel never occurred to you.
[A word of caution: Due to some violent themes and coarse language, Alphonse is more suitable for mature teenagers or young adults. Give Alphonse to either and it will be read, quickly.]