Title: Two Brothers
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Writers: Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá
Artists: Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. Read at your own risk!
Two Brothers is an adaptation of a novel by Brazilian author Milton Hatoum, brought to us by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, the twin brothers who gave us the transcendental Vertigo series Daytripper. I haven’t read the book that inspired their new graphic novel, so I can’t speak to how closely it cleaves to the original material. However, I get the impression that Moon and Bá created Two Brothers with great respect for Hatoum’s work. Each page of this stirring family drama seems a labor of love.
Two Brothers begins with a series of atmospheric landscapes that set the tone for the prologue. Heavy blacks and long, deep shadows create a dour mood. It feels very much like the opening descriptive paragraphs of a novel, as the first few pages are silent. Moon and Bá often employ silent environmental panels in Two Brothers, a device that works very well to take the place of prose description. An elderly woman on her death bed asks if her sons have “made their peace with each other yet,” a question nobody answers. Very early, the book establishes its primary conflict and, through caption boxes, the first-person narration of a character within the story. Moon and Bá’s style in Two Brothers is recognizably similar to their work on Daytripper, but Brothers follows reality less closely. This makes the artwork no less impressive; Moon and Bá are in top form, so the book is gorgeous. Because Two Brothers is in black and white, each character needed to be easily distinguished from the others and the environment. The designs of Yaqub and Omar, the titular twins, are a good example of this. Though they were born identical, Yaqub is drawn with a patch of white at the front of his dark hair, and he prominently bares a scar on his face. At first, these are the only features that differ between them, but they become more distinct over the course of the story as they age and the gap between their circumstances widens. Yaqub, who is more introspective and reserved, dresses neatly, while Omar, who is boisterous and hedonistic, often looks sloppy.
While the plot centers around the decades-long conflict between Yaqub and Omar, it also encompasses how that conflict affects, and eventually ruins, their family. The first person narrator in the prose captions is Nael, the bastard son of one of the twins with one of the family servants. Nael observes the past and present of his family as something of an outsider, it being a poorly-kept secret that he isn’t just the serving girl’s boy. Distance characterizes many character dynamics: Yaqub and Omar; each of the twins and their father Halim; Yaqub and his mother, Zana, who favors Omar for being the younger twin; and Nael with the rest of his family. This works because the general theme of distance factors into the art, as well, with contrast between crowded scenes and expansive negative space, whether it’s within panels or between them. Sometimes, even important moments happen between panels, distancing the reader from those events. The most prominent example is the inciting incident of Omar and Yaqub’s estrangement. When they’re 13, Omar slashes Yaqub’s face with a broken bottle. This is rendered in three panels: a close-up of chairs scratching against the floor, a close-up of the bottle breaking, and the bottle in Omar’s hand, trailing blood. Their presentation is obscured by chaotically-lettered sound effects, which lends to the sense of violence. Only seeing the attack’s aftermath is more powerful than portraying the actual blow, because the imagination can make it worse. On-panel violence becomes all the more striking for this, and not only because Moon and Bá draw it with energy.
Violence punctuates turning points in the story. One day, fed up with Omar’s insatiable, selfish pleasure-seeking, Halim drags his younger son through the house before giving him a mighty slap and chaining him to a safe. Later, enraged with his family for forcing him to leave a lover, Omar storms into the house and shatters a mirror, after which Zana convinces him to remain at home. These moments hinge on relationships, as violence and indeed the story itself do. Halim striking Omar signals that he will no longer tolerate the young man’s delinquencies, and he says it without speaking a word out loud. Conversely, Zana’s comfort following the mirror incident shows just how jealously Zana keeps him, chasing away every woman with whom he becomes involved. I found this a much more disconcerting moment, even though Zana’s words are meant to be soothing. The family spends so much time tearing each other apart that it’s almost impressive they hold together for so long before the collapse of their prosperity, which happens in a moving, gradual manner.
I did find it occasionally difficult to follow a few of the connections between the characters, particularly Nael and his mother, Domingas, as Nael is introduced through his narration long before he appears on a page. As interesting as the story is, Two Brothers can also feel like Hatoum’s novel in illustrations, rather than its own reinterpretation into another medium. That being said, Two Brothers is a work of true artistic merit by two true artists. Though I would have liked to see something with the imagination of Daytripper or Umbrella Academy, I still found a good read.