[Outside the Frame] Gerry Alanguilan’s “Elmer” – The Greatest Chicken Comic Ever
When I started writing this column, I had a handful of comics I knew wanted to talk about. Stories that had affected me so much I wanted to tell the world about them. Elmer is one of those books I couldn’t forget.
Gerry Alanguilan is a Filipino comic book artist and writer who’s well known as an inker for both Marvel and DC, but his indie cred extends all the way back to his first comic. That work includes Johnny Balbona, “Wasted”, “Timawa”, “Humanis Rex” and “Where Bold Stars Go To Die“. Through his own company, Komikero Publishing, Alanguilan put out four issues of Elmer between 2006 and 2008, collecting them into a single volume in 2009. That book was republished by Slave Labor Graphics, and a French translation was put out by Editions çà et là, both in 2010.
Elmer won the 2011 Quai des Bulles, the 2011 Prix-Asie ACBD (Best Asian Album), and was nominated for a “Best New Album” Eisner award the same year. It’s been called “heartbreaking and funny and so beautifully drawn,” by Neil Gaiman (The Philippine Star, 2011). Adam David, in the Philippines Free Press (2008), said “it’s the great Filipino novel, with chickens.”
Jake Gallo doesn’t like humans, and he’s not that fond of his own family either. He’s struggling to fit into a world where chickens have all of the same rights as humans, in theory. In reality, Jake is acutely aware of the prejudice which surrounds him, and he’s understandably angry when faced with invisible barriers no one wants to admit to. His sister is a nurse, working side by side with humans, and his brother Freddie is a pretty, pampered, movie star. They don’t see the world the way Jake does, and as the story goes on, you find out why Jake’s problems with humans are particularly personal.
When his father, Elmer, passes away, Jake is given his dad’s journal, and learns family secrets he doesn’t know how to handle. He pushes himself to read on, and the story cuts between Elmer’s memories and Jake’s time at his mother’s house after the funeral. Elmer started writing as a way to learn language but ends up recording the transformation of the chickens from meat & egg producers to sentient creatures fighting for recognition, and the painful process of acceptance.
The main characters are layered, with history and depth that make Jake question his perceptions of everyone he knows. Kindly farmer Ben, who’s always been there, is shown to have ties to Elmer going back to before the transformation, and Jake’s emotions flare up as the story comes out in bits and pieces. His sister is engaged to a human, and his brother might be gay.
As the book progresses different characters make a point of treading cautiously around Jake’s mother, who everyone sees as a weak woman lost without her husband. While she struggles with the transition from dumb hen to intelligent member of society, Alanguilan allows us to see her origins, so even Jake’s image of her is changed.
In addition to writing a complex story, Alanguilan’s art stands out for its depth and detail:
I’m a huge fan of traditional style artwork, and am impressed by the volume of line work in Elmer. It is beautifully drawn, especially the faces of the chickens, which show a far greater range of emotion that one would have expected. They are sad and afraid and angry and confused and hopeful and proud. You can see it in their eyes, in the movement of their heads, and the placement of the feathers.
What I love most about this book is that it could have been unimportant. A slap-stick, drawn for humor, talking animal book. Instead Elmer is insightful, and the chickens allow Alanguilan to talk about race, violence, abuse, lost histories, and pride in a way that’s accessible to readers. In particular it’s about finding yourself in the context of your family’s secrets. By the end I was proud of what Elmer accomplished, and I’d hope we can all find the strength to stand up when others decide our race, gender, nationality, or anything else would be reason to keep us down.
Next week: Daniel Clowes’s The Death Ray.
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