Patrick Atangan’s ‘Fires Above Hyperion’ Finds the Universal in One Love Life
The first line of copy on the back of Patrick Atangan's Fires Above Hyperion reads, "Imagine if Sex and the City were written by a gay Charlie Brown..." So of course, I thought, 'I don't just want to imagine that. I want to read Sex and the City written by a gay Charlie Brown, and I want to read it as soon as possible."
And so, in all likelihood, will you.
Despite the colorful, mythological-sounding title, Fires Above Hyperion refers to a more mundane event: the time Atangan ended a three-year relationship during a particularly bad fire season in his hometown of Los Angeles, and a nearby fire made it look like the whole city north of Hyperion Boulevard was on fire.
"I thought melodramatically," Atangan writes of the night of that break-up, "that it looked like the whole city was burning down for the occasion." And, indeed, when it's your love life, it's easy to make every event seem melodramatic, even mythological... at least to yourself. The trick of this particular graphic novel is the way in which Atangan makes events and aspects in his personal life seem that way to the reader as well. There's a relatability, an almost universality to his stories, which he achieves in their telling, even if readers might feel divorced from many of the specifics.
The book consists of nine short stories, organized chronologically to form a history of Atangan's love life, beginning with his junior prom, long before he was out, and ending with his contemplation of the approach of middle age.
Atangan has a lovely, highly affected and abstracted style, the panels often looking like carefully constructed collages of arranged, two-dimensional shapes. His people have moon-like faces, which read as if the characters are in profile and facing the reader simultaneously at all times. His long-shots of cities are panels full of colorful rectangles, like a pile of confetti organized and standing at attention to play-act as a city, only a detail or two separating one city from the other. (San Francisco, for example, has a big red bridge next to its distant rectangles.)
His super-simplified style not only makes it easier to project emotions and imagine details into the characters --- to see yourself or someone you know in them, for example --- but can be taken a few steps further to render more complicated emotions or physical acts in a way that approaches symbolic.
Take, for example, this rare sex scene.
After a panel in which the dotted white lines call attention to little details, evoking the hyper-aware state of physical romance, the next panel finds the characters reduced to flickering shapes, like colorful shadows, or souls entwining.
On the following pages, additional panels show the characters in different moods and states; note how, in the second one, each figure generates a separate accompanying shape, rather than the single one they formed in the first few panels.
That's one of many neat graphic tricks Atangan employees in these stories. Another favorite is the one shown on the cover, in which the "ghosts" of past relationships, rendered as long-tailed dialogue bubbles, pursue Atangan's avatar like mental baggage.
These visual strategies, which achieve the surface goal of looking good, but carry further, subtler meaning that a reader can perhaps understand without even notice, are the sort of only-in-comics presentations that make Fires such a powerful example of the medium.
You've probably been through the social nonsense of high school; you've more than likely had crushes, been in relationship and been broken up; you probably haven't been through the weird, awkward situation Atangan endures in the story "Gary," but regardless, you know what it's like to feel green and swirly, or to feel like the only person in a crowded room, separated from the others by something solid, if imaginary.
Synesthaesia is at the heart of comics --- from words meant to replicate sounds to drawings meant to suggest motion --- but Atangan excels at translating feelings into emotions. That's a heck of a lot more sophisticated than Charlie Brown, gay or straight, writing Sex in The City-style, but that back-cover copy certainly lured me in.
Fires Above Hyperion goes on sale this October from NBM.