A comic about researching for another potential comic might sound like it’s all kinds of self-indulgently meta but Beth Barnett’s Dreamers of the Day is the polar opposite; an honest, straightforward and eminently likeable account of her interest in the life of T.E. Lawrence and her trip to the UK to discover more about him. It’s graphic memoir that reads like a tantalising precursor for something potentially longer-form and, like Barnett’s previous work, it has that same appealingly raw and amiable openness.
After quitting her day job to concentrate on comics Barnett embarks on a journey to Magdalen College in Oxford to attend an exhibition and a series of talks on the man popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia – war hero, writer, archaeologist and diplomat (amongst many other roles), whose activities in the Middle East at the time of the First World War will perhaps be best known to many via Peter O’Toole’s performance in the 1962 David Lean directed movie. Dreamers of the Day juxtaposes Lawrence’s life around 100 years before with Barnett’s investigations into a man both enigmatic and very human; an always affable on-page persona ensuring our empathy as her infectious enthusiasm for her subject positively spills out of the page.
That’s the key ingredient of Dreamers of the Day. While the slice-of-life sensibilities of Barnett’s recollections are always engaging it’s her ability to pull us headfirst into her experiences as she immerses herself in the writing, ephemera and artefacts surrounding her idol that truly resonates. Handling photos Lawrence took or seeing his clothing elicits feelings of joy, anticipation and discovery that are instantly shared by the reader, so swept away are we in the thrill of her search into the past. Two worlds, intertwined in the now, yet forever separate.
Barnett has a deft touch in visual shorthand that conveys so much about Lawrence’s life, and the complexities of the time he lived, in easily digestible but never superficial sequences; respectful but also not oblivious to his flaws and idiosyncrasies. She eschews traditional panel structures for a more freeform sequentiality with a neat synthesis of recurring narrative motifs and graphic metaphor in places. At 140-plus pages this is obviously a comparatively longer-form work but it has a charming near-diary comics feel to it that wanders into almost scrapbook-style territory at times. As a prologue to (hopefully) an ambitious project yet to come, Dreamers of the Day is graphic memoir at its most endearing and informative best.
For regular updates on all things small press follow Andy Oliver on Twitter here.
Review by Andy Oliver