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There’s something magically unique about a graphic novel that integrates the aesthetics of the story its about to tell long before the reader even reaches the beginnings of a plot line. Herman by Trade, Toronto-based artist Chris W. Kim’s first graphic novel, reads just like a storyboard for a film from its very first panel — perfectly fitting for a tale of a humble street cleaner caught up in the frustrating process of open auditions for a movie.
The first four pages of panels set the scene. A wide-angle shot of a metropolitan waterfront. A boat passes by. Ducks swim in the boat’s wake. The water crashes on the boardwalk, where a man walks his dog. Eventually, a mysterious cloaked figure walks by, and from the opposite direction, Herman drives his garbage-collecting golf cart along the boardwalk.
The reader soon finds that Herman is much more than just a cleaner. He’s a master of disguise, able to transform his appearance into a variety of different people and characters. He goes home after work one day, metamorphosing into a tall shadowy man in a cloak, and decides to join the long line at a movie theater for a popular film about street performers. The movie, Gare, is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and when it ends, the genius director appears onstage to the lively standing ovation of an audience dressed up for the occasion. The director declares that she’ll be holding open auditions for a new film on the waterfront. Intrigued, Herman decides to audition … as does everyone else in the theater and a large portion of the rest of the city.
When Herman finally makes it to the audition tent after waiting in line for days — already rejected once and losing his job in the process — he shows off his skills as a chameleon. The director first hires him to act as the “connective tissue between each performer,” morphing from one person to the next as they walk along the waterfront, but she soon discovers he can just play all the parts. It’d be easier to shoot the film in a single shot anyway. Needless to say, the rest of the performers are less than thrilled.
Throughout the book, the aura of film continues to seep in, not only through the careful framing of panels, but also in the way Kim handles the dialogue. The artist’s use of expressive speech bubbles is nothing short of amazing. Speech bubbles overlap to show people talking at the same time. They disappear into the background and become illegible (inaudible) as characters recede into the distance. And they cut off at the edges of the panels when Herman merely overhears snippets of a conversation.
It’s difficult to figure out the character of Herman and exactly what he’s supposed to represent. On one hand, he’s extremely talented, yet dismissed as a simple cleaner. Then again, at the behest of the surly auteur, Herman actively steals the identities and talents of the rest of the actors on set. By the end of the book, it seems Herman may have just dropped into the universe of the story in order to teach the people of the waterfront a valuable lesson about community and individuality. But even that is left ambiguous.
In the last six-panel page of Herman by Trade, the reader watches from an alley as people walk by. Businessmen. Families. Policeman. Students. By the last panel, everyone looks exactly the same.