Dragon's Breath: and Other True Stories
MariNaomi’s graphic memoir opens with a portrait of her grandfather. She would ask him to blow smoke in her face, and he relished the gesture as he blew rings of smoke her way. He was her favorite person in the world.
Years later, MariNaomi would learn that her grandfather was abusive and racist, and very much hurt other members of her family. How then, she asks, do you remember him? “Violent racist, or the man who loved me the most?”
"I couldn’t help feel, with each passing episode, as though MariNaomi were someone I knew. The familiar pointed arrows and funny asides felt like something drawn, lovingly, for a friend."
The dark ambiguity surrounding personal relationships becomes a unifying theme through the sometimes-related episodes collected in DRAGON’S BREATH: and Other True Stories. This ambiguity helps the workrise far above its easy, casual tone. The collected episodes are told with the intimacy of a passed note. I couldn’t help feel, with each passing episode, as though MariNaomi were someone I knew. The familiar pointed arrows and funny asides felt like something drawn, lovingly, for a friend.
This is a graphic memoir in the vein of FUN HOME or PERSEPOLIS. The art is often reminiscent of PERSEPOLIS, with simple, bold visual characterizations. The episodes, roughly chronological though relatively disjointed, make up for their discontinuous nature with the chummy, friendly feeling evident in the drawings, diagrams and dialogues. From boyfriends to bedbugs to dead-end jobs, each piece has its own logic, its own sassy, delightful shorthand. In a way, the gaps between episodes are filled in much the same way that they would be from a stack of papers from your friend --- you just knew. That MariNaomi can convert this feeling to strangers in print is a rare gift.
Toward the end of the memoir, MariNaomi is about to get married. She excitedly tells her family and friends, and is rebuked immediately by her queer friends, who don’t have the same privilege to marry as she. Even as she takes in the joy of getting married, still she feels for the injustice her friends must put up with.
This, in essence, is dragon’s breath. The smoke that is blown towards you, encompassing love and hatred, everything from familial love to depression and addiction, all in one floating cloud of smoke. Does it burn you, or do you come through? MariNoami gives ample room for ambiguity here, and respects all sides of the argument. DRAGON’S BREATH is a funny, intimate and sometimes sad ode to multiplicity. Each episode comes over you like a puff of smoke, and with it comes both a little cough and the rich scent of fresh tobacco.
Reviewed by L. Whitney Richardson on September 9, 2014