Victory Parade. by Leela Corman. Schocken. 2024 (Pre-order) 177 pp. hardcover. $29.
Leela Corman is a force of nature within the comics community and so it is no surprise that her latest book is quite impressive. We go back to Brooklyn, New York, 1943. Corman takes the reader back in time with her comics that are immersed in the ethos of New Objectivity, an art movement begun in the 1920s in response to the more popular German Expressionism (and ending in 1933 with the Nazi party in power) which brought to the fore such artists as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and George Grosz. This is art stripped of idealism, concerned with gritty reality, and known for an “expressive” and often cartoon-like quality, a sensibility in tune with many contemporary artist-cartoonists. This particular influence is exemplified in the work of Leela Corman. It is from this darker, beyond world-weary, palette that Corman presents a set of misfits trapped within the gears of a giant meat grinder, caught somewhere between a near death in Brooklyn and a sure death in a concentration camp. Even when the Allies win the war, no one feels like celebrating. In a sense, Corman’s work functions more as painting than a narrative as it is essentially a powerful device with which to evoke this overwhelming despair. There are stories to be told here too, for sure, but I’m just saying that much of this graphic novel’s power comes from its unflinching stare into the abyss.
Don’t expect conventional storytelling here, especially any familiar and reassuring resolution. This is a masterwork by Corman and it is confidently laid out as such. Characters come and go, in precise order. They may not acknowledge how purposeful their steps are and yet seem to know what they must ultimately do with the limited time and resources they have. Rose is going to pursue her affair, while her abusive husband is away at war and even after he’s back. Ruth, the Jew who has found a home with Rose, is going to focus her aggression on a new career as a lady wrestler even if it means she has to be branded as a Kraut monster. And Eleanor, Rose’s daughter, must try to cope amid the dysfunction. Darkness upon darkness. Despair upon despair. And yet beautifully rendered as art and nuanced observation.
If you want to pin this down a bit, you can say that this is graphic novel framed within a family: Rose, the matriarch who works as a riveter; Ruth, who explicitly functions as the Other; and Eleanor who provides the trope of the child’s point of view. And then you have to let in the supernatural because much of this book is about the never-ending conflict between the living and the dead. The dead are always present, either attempting to understand events that led them to the other side or welcoming a constant stream of new arrivals. Death is never too far away. Death turns out to be as real and relevant as anything passing for alive. It is an artist-writer-cartoonist of the caliber of Leela Corman who can conjure upon the stage all of these dancing skeletons and turn it into compelling art.