*Spoiler alert: I do talk about things that happen in this book. That being said, I think that it doesn’t matter if you know what happens or not; you’ll still want to pick up the book and flip through it.
Ray Fawkes’ One Soul is like nothing else I’ve read. Really. People have tried parallel storytelling before, but not like this.
Firstly, I read the book eighteen times; rather, I flipped the pages eighteen times as I followed each of the eighteen stories Fawkes sets up. Each double-page spread consists of nine equally sized panels per page, tracing a total of eighteen life stories that are supposedly connected by a single soul. The strong narrative voice that shows up in the captions seems to serve as the voice of the soul, and is the reason the book holds together rather than seeming disjointed to the point of incoherence.
Fawkes makes a point of starting the book in blackness, all eighteen panels delineated, but dark. The first spark of life shows up after the page turn as a white paint splash in each panel. The concept of the soul is visible and supported by the captions that appear in several of the panels. The captions are the only words in the book; there is no direct dialogue. After the third page turn, we see all eighteen children being born in various circumstances. In effect, Fawkes is teaching us how to read the book by showing his concept through pictures and structure.
If you read the book like a traditional comic, left-to-right, then you’ll follow the stories chronologically, showing a moment from each person’s infancy, childhood, etc. The oldest story is a neolithic hunter, the newest a 70s punk girl. The characters range from slaves to military leaders, doctors to prostitutes. Aside from the interesting array of life circumstances, Fawkes’ structure allows you to compare the length and themes of the various lives. The first character dies about a quarter of the way through the book, and is thereafter represented as a black square. However, words appear in the blackness. As more and more characters die, more words appear in the blackness. The words of the dead seem to be specific to each character at first, but as the book goes on the language is more like a chorus. Eventually the words in the blackness overtake the pages and meld into one.
There is no clear moral to these stories, nor any obvious lesson to be learned. The longest-lived character, a woman who was raised by a chorus girl and grew up to be a singer, seems to be the closest the book gets to any kind of answer. At the very end, as an old woman, she says, “I’ve had some time/when I was small my mother taught me to say/thank you.” At the same time, the black panels of the dead have turned to one large panel which reads “this is me and all of this”. The character’s moment of gratitude seems to align with the uniting of the soul in darkness. This re-uniting—a striking change from the book’s opening image—seems to be the closest thing the book has to a conclusion.
In a way that mirrors the characters living and dying again and again, I read this book again and again. I read the individual stories. I read the pages across like a traditional comic, where each page took on a poem-like quality, connected by theme of events and images more than anything else. But overall, the thing that held this comic together for me was the voice. The voice asked the questions about what the point of the stories that I was wondering myself. The voice of the soul tied the stories together and allowed me to track themes across characters, both living and dead. While the voice may not have had too many answers, the visual unity of the panels at the end was enough for me.
So, in the tradition of the Trade Secrets Podcast: Buy, Borrow, or Burn?
If you’re a storytelling nerd like me, buy it.
If I piqued your interest but you don’t feel like dropping $25 or think parallel storytelling might just get on your nerves, borrow it.
Sound interesting? Pick it up at your local comic shop or online.
Ray Fawkes, One Soul. Oni Press, 2011. $24.99