It was Elizabeth Bowen who observed that it is “not only our fate but our business to lose innocence, and once we have lost that it is futile to attempt to picnic in Eden”. In King of King Court, Travis Dandro’s illustrated memoir and first graphic novel, fate alone ruptures the idyll of Dandro’s childhood.
When the book opens, it’s 1980. He is about six and lives with his parents in central Massachusetts. After a carefree day of swimming, he and his new inflatable-clown punching bag are dropped off at home by a man named Dave. Later that night, when Dandro is in bed and his mother is staring angrily out of her bedroom window, a drunken male figure – Dandro’s father, we presume – returns and slams the door. There’s an argument of some sort. The couple’s bedroom window is pictured in three separate panels: ajar, closed, then ajar again. In the middle panel, a faint “BILLY STOP!” is etched into the black roof shingles.
During all this commotion the inflatable clown has, to Dandro’s surprise, grown larger and larger, filling the room and finally squeezing out of the chimney. The young boy rides it like a blimp into a night sky filled with Van Gogh stars. He’s sailing over Leicester, heading straight for the moon, oblivious to things like the owl in the tree below with a rodent in its talons. It’s an imaginary escape that – for now, at least – shields Dandro from the trauma and tumult consuming the adults around him.
The sequence recalls a bored Calvin in Calvin and Hobbes watching in awe as his desk transforms into a rampaging triceratops that breaks him out of school, and it is not the only echo of Bill Watterson’s distinctive visual language. Dandro even draws himself as a wide-eyed, spiky-haired boy, a cruder version of Calvin with a hint of Little Orphan Annie. But any similarities are in service of very different ends. Dandro’s vignettes are more likely to end on an ambiguous or ambivalent note than in tidy philosophizing or a punchline.
What marks the point when the scales fall from Dandro’s pupil-less eyes? In early scenes, he walks past a large tree engraved with graffiti reading, “Tonya is a slut” and “Marks mom has big tits”. He’s blind to the vulgarities, too focused on the egg he has been tasked with delivering to his Aunt Gail. When Dandro finds an ant-covered Oreo in the grass, the cookie is all he sees. We watch it entering the boy’s mouth from the inside; then there is a close-up of his tongue capturing every last morsel, right down to the ant that has escaped to his upper lip. Even when Dandro’s mother confides that Dave is in fact his biological father, the boy is more preoccupied with the fly that’s buzzing around his slice of pizza. And when Dandro later catches “Dad Dave” tying off his arm in the pantry, he assumes it’s because his father is sick and needs a self- administered shot.
The initial chinks develop when Dave beats down the door in an attempt to reclaim his son. Dandro hides behind the living-room furniture, emerging later to an empty house with police cars outside. The next morning he attempts to ride his inflatable clown down the stairs into a magically flooded landscape, but a dragonfly with a scorpion stinger punctures the raft and Dandro sinks, sinks, sinks. Influenced by ambient talk of kidnappings and murders, Dandro soon dreams that Dave has abducted him, pulled him from the trunk of his Dodge Charger and slit his throat, spattering blood across the leaves on the forest floor. It’s after this that Dandro starts sleeping with a kitchen knife under his pillow.
By the second half of the book, which picks up when Dandro is roughly sixteen, the picnic in Eden is forever gone. His mother, now divorced, rekindles her fraught relationship with Dave against her son’s wishes. And Dave, despite a stint in prison and vows to reform, remains haunted by his younger brother’s suicide and trapped in the downward spiral of addiction. Overwhelmed by the futility of recapturing a paradise lost, he resigns with finality.
As an illustrator, Dandro has a gift for the cinematic. There are atmospheric, wordless panels tracing the movement of a cloud over sand dunes, showcasing the telling details of interior furnishings and portraying the slow construction of a wasps’ nest in the eaves. They read like a Kieślowski storyboard. Dandro’s dialogue is more utilitarian, but the poetic and the prosaic can pair well, as when he reminisces as a teenager about anthropomorphizing the bird in the cuckoo clock. “Life was so much better when I believed stuff like that”, he says. “Yes,” replies his grandmother, “but you also believed that there was a monster in the basement.” Perhaps Eden was not so edenic after all.