In Blackbird Days (Fantagraphics Books) the Italian master Manuele Fior plays with form and style in a series of experimental shorts, some of which appear like brief notes on a scene, while others are more elaborated and developed narratives. It’s difficult to pick a favorite, but the collection’s final story, “Gare De L’Est,” makes a commanding play for that spot. The story, whose title is French for “East Railway Station,” sees Fior affecting his (apparently) infinitely elastic style to resemble the Floyd Gottfredson-by-way-of-George Herriman cartooning of Chris Blain. A father and son look on as a pair of robots—designed in the classic style of Gigantor—duke it out between the buildings of some anonymous city. The whole thing features less than a handful of lines of dialogue, and it features only the most superficial gestures toward narrative. But Fior affects a dynamic, expressive style, and the whole thing moves with an excitable energy. It is, simply put, incredible fun to read.
But “Gare De L’Est” doesn’t represent the entirety of Blackbird Days. While “Gare De L’Est” hits notes of sincerity, simplicity, and sweetness, other stories swerve into more delicate territory. In “Grandma And Grandson,” Fior tells the story of a young Laotian woman fleeing war for France in the 1960s, as well as the story of her adult grandson reflecting on his relationship to his Laotian and French identities. Unlike “Gare De L’Est,” which Fior illustrates with more emphasis on speed and movement, he illustrates “Grandma And Grandson” in accordance with this story’s more somber tone. Details are reduced to smears, and images are made to represent impressions of moods rather than a record of an event. The technique is affective, though one gets the sense that Fior could have done more with more space.
Fior, however, tells most of the book’s stories in a third aesthetic register, which is composed of various attempts to balance these somber and jovial tones. The stand-out from this third register is probably the collection’s second story, “Class Trip.” A teacher accompanies her class on a trip to Paris. We get the impression that her personal life is strained, and her students—not considering that she has a life outside of theirs—disrespect and belittle her. In some ways, the story feels fully matured; it has a clear emotional core, and Fior manages to powerfully relate it to his readers.
But in other ways, it functions more like a sketch—like a fragment of some larger project. That is to say, the story’s most promising moments, while striking, are fleeting. But, like all the stories in the collection, “Class Trip” feature Fior’s stylistic flourishes: humor, comfort, elegance, wit, and vitality. Each story offers readers these traits in varying amounts, but even the smallest dose of these qualities, in concert with one another, can result in a moving, soothing experience.