Culture  Slice-of-life, served cold

Dave Lapp’s detached vignettes lack direction

Let me start out by saying that I am not a connoisseur of graphic novels. And that I have trouble writing bad reviews. I hold this odd belief, as a bibliophile, that all books and printed materials are in some way or another sacred. And since someone has taken the trouble to print it, it must be of value. But perhaps, this one time, I have to say it: I just don’t think this is a great book. I keep trying to find ways to redeem it in my mind, but I can’t seem to do it.

I picked up Drop-In with great interest because I had recently read and loved Persepolis and I wanted to learn more about the genre. But I found that the label of “graphic novel” may be misleading, because Dave Lapp’s book doesn’t have a plotline or a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. As the publishers more accurately described it, it is a “collection of stories about his work as an art teacher in an inner city Toronto youth drop-in centre.”

In this roughly 150-page book (I’m guessing, since there are no page numbers), Lapp creates a world in and around the youth centre, in which he is confronted with all the issues inherent in that world – poverty, mental illness, racism, etc. And though the subject matter is captivating, I spent most of the time waiting for something to happen.

The most frustrating thing about Drop-In is that there doesn’t seem to be a message. Lapp doesn’t really say anything. He doesn’t take a stand or make a statement about anything. Only twice in the book did I find a clear message – in the first and last pages. The first image is that of a little plant growing up from the drain in the art room. And the last scene depicts a troubled black kid bumping fists with Lapp, giving him props. But even these images are cliché and uninspiring.

Lapp intentionally places himself in the position of the confused or fearful spectator in most scenes. And I find this frustrating because the entire time I am silently urging him to do something, say something, or just freak out. To his credit, I believe he does this intentionally in order not to cast judgment on the people in his stories. And that would be great if his characters unraveled themselves or went through some sort of transformation. But they remain relatively flat and Lapp remains the confused middle-class-white-guy observer.

An expert might say, Camille, shush, you just don’t get it. And it’s true: I am not well-versed in graphic novels. And I am also unfamiliar with the milieu Lapp writes about. I have never experienced an urban youth centre and perhaps I lack the social compass that could guide me through these vignettes. So if I’m missing the point here, let me know.

I agree with most of what the reviewers on the back of the book say: It’s true that Lapp offers an unblinkingly frank portrayal of what he experienced at the youth centre. And yes, “There’s tension in these small slice-of-life pieces but also a dreamlike quality, and that combination somehow captures life’s oddness.” But I can’t help but ask, So what? Unlike this reviewer, I didn’t laugh and I didn’t cry.

In the end it feels like Lapp is handing us this book of memories while raising his eyebrows and shrugging, as if to say “Beats me!” or “Here, you deal with this.” No thanks.