The People Inside by Ray Fawkes
The People Inside by Ray Fawkes is a follow-up to his fairly recent graphic novel One Soul. Ray Fawkes is currently writing a number of titles for DC, and those titles are well-written, but One Soul and The People Inside are absolutely brilliant works of art that attempt to expand the possibilities of sequential art on the printed page. Lately, I’ve seen a number of advances in sequential art in the area of digital comics; however, I felt as if everything new had already been discovered and tried in print — until I read One Soul, which I like so much I have already placed it on the syllabus for my English courses next semester. Now I need to decide if I want to add The People Inside to my syllabus or save it for a future semester. Either way, I know I will teach it eventually.
First let me discuss One Soul since The People Inside is based on the same visual-narrative technique. One Soul focuses on the lives of eighteen individuals and follows their life-stories from birth to death. When the book is open to the first two-page spread, nine panels are displayed on each page in a 3×3 grid, for a total of eighteen panels, one for each person. Each time a page is turned, one sees all eighteen panels at once, and Fawkes makes sure that we see each person at roughly the same stage in life with each flip of the page (see image below of the eighteen babies).
Fawkes emphasizes the similarity in life-stage usually by incorporating the same perspective in each panel: For example, all eighteen panels might offer a close-up of a facial expression of the person. Eighteen close-up faces create a striking presentation. At other times, the perspective offered is from far away, or from a unique angle, and so on.
The words function differently than the images: They are poetic and connect the images in such a way that the book can be read in several ways. One can pick one of the eighteen panels and read that same person’s panel straight through to the end of the book, ignoring the rest of the people (see image below. From that perspective, One Soul consists of eighteen short stories. Or one can read all the words in all the panels the way one would read a conventional comic book.
A wonderful third option is possible as well: As each character dies, the panel is shaded black and words begin to appear offering meditations on life and death. A third way to read the story, then, would be to read just the darkened panels together to receive a poetic reflection on the meaning of life coming from a chorus of different voices with the same concern.
The People Inside is similar in technique in that it’s told in two-page units. However, instead of nine panels per page, the first page has six panels, each with a couple in it. The second page, the one on the right facing the reader, has seven panels. The bottom left panel actually consists of two panels, each one devoted to an individual not in a relationship. Therefore, the book is about twenty-four people, and it starts out with eleven couples and two people on their own (see second-to-last image).
While One Soul traces each person’s life from birth to death, The People Inside follows a variety of births and deaths of different kinds of relationships. Those relationships include heterosexual and homosexual relationships; the homosexual relationships include both gay and lesbian couples; the marriages shown are a wide variety as well, from the abusive to the deeply caring, from short and painful to long and tender; and the sexual aspects of the relationships vary from ones of innocence all the way to S&M. I honestly don’t know how Fawkes managed to incorporate so much of life into one book.
The People Inside tries a new narrative technique that was not used in One Soul: As relationships break-up, the panels divide in two, or if a character creates another relationship with a person in an adjoining panel, the panels will join to make a larger panel. For example, over the course of the book, one top row of two panels eventually is comprised of three panels. Two small panels are now on each side of a larger panel in the middle showing a new couple. This new couple came together by breaking apart two couples that originally existed in the two separate panels shown at the start of the book.
The story traces all kinds of events you would expect from the most joyous to the most horrible. We watch couples get married, raise families, and start businesses; we smile at the holidays and anniversaries and the early struggles of a young family that make a couple stronger over time. However, we also witness heartbreak, alcoholism, depression, affairs, divorce, murder, and even suicide. We witness early deaths as well as long relationships. We watch people overcome great burdens and others give in to seemingly lesser tragedy. What else can I say? Fawkes has seemingly compressed all of life into his graphic novel.
I’ve saved my favorite aspect of The People Inside for last. While the images represent the external lives we see, the words in the panels express internal lives, or The People Inside. The words vary, conveying emotions, reactions, or thoughts of what a person wants to say but does not say. The words are internal and are presented stream-of-consciousness style without any punctuation, which works well because Fawkes does not employ long Faulkner-like sentences.
The words offer a poetic set of impressions, and the images combined with the words in The People Inside has an impact that I would imagine would be very similar to reading a novel consisting solely of a series of haiku. A haiku novel would be impressionistic and thoughtful, but it would not have narrative tension at the level of a traditional novel. And The People Inside also has narrative — it’s there — but it’s one you have to work to discover. This book is one you want to spend time with, flipping pages and savoring. I would suggest reading each couple’s relationship all the way through at least once before reading them all simultaneously.
The People Inside offers a series of meditations on the various ways relationships shape the meanings of our lives, our inner realities. It’s an emotionally powerful graphic novel, and other than One Soul, I’ve never read anything like it. I’m already prepared to claim that it is one of the greatest graphic novels of all-time. I just can’t decide if I like One Soul or The People Inside better. Perhaps it’s best to see them as companion pieces. I promise you’re going to want to own both of these books so that you can read them multiple times.
Note: I greatly enjoy reading digital books, but the layout of both these graphic novels make digital reading less than ideal since you often need to see both pages at once and often will want to glance back a few pages and ahead a few pages very rapidly in order to follow what’s going on.