Author: Paco Roca
Publish Date: January 2015
Publisher: Knockabout Comics
Catalog ID: 9780861662371
Where to buy: http://www.knockabout.com/shop/?product=graphic-novels
Author website: http://www.pacoroca.com/ (in Spanish)
Additional info: Translated from French by Nora Goldberg
Guest review by Martha Cornog, Graphic Novel Columnist, Library Journal (this review has no connection with Library Journal and is solely the opinion of the reviewer)
As the comics industry has been maturing in recent decades, so has its content. It’s been both sobering and fascinating to see excellent graphic novels coming out on aging, elder care, and the end of life. I’m thinking particularly of Joyce Farmer’s Special Exits, Roz Chast’s Why Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant, Aneurin Wright’s Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park…When You’re 29 and Unemployed, Lucy Knisley’s Displacement: A Travelogue, and Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles: A Story about My Mother, Alzheimer’s, and Me—most mentioned elsewhere on the Graphic Medicine website.
A worthy fellow star in the same constellation is this work by Spanish cartoonist Roca, which was originally released in 2007 first in France then in Spain, and adapted into an animated film in 2011. Both book and film have won multiple awards in Europe. Retired bank executive Ernest must accommodate himself reluctantly to an elder care facility when his son will no longer tolerate his father’s mental lapses. Soon Ernest finds himself rooming with Émile, a jovial wheeler-dealer who scams small sums out of the other residents but also procures things for them against the rules—like a dog for Raymond.
Indeed all the seniors have their quirks. Adrienne saves ketchup packets for her grandson, Joseph see himself as a foreign legionnaire, Eugene feigns deafness to lure female staff close enough to cop a feel, and Mrs. Rose thinks she’s riding the Orient Express—and these are the saner folks. Émile has no illusions, and annoyed by the facility’s restrictions and medications, he asserts that the purpose must be for him and his fellow residents “to live longer badly.” Eventually, he tells Ernest about the dreaded upper floor, where those elderly live who cannot manage on their own. Ernest asks Émile to take him up there, and he is appalled how everyone is much more out of touch with reality that the crowd downstairs. Cursing, moaning, and endlessly repeated phrases have replaced anything resembling normal conversation.
Learning that he’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Ernest swears to do everything to avoid moving upstairs and enlists Émile to help. Elaborate, sometimes comical schemes ensue: escaping on a joyride in a car obtained through Émile’s ill-gotten gains (they wreck the car since no one can drive competently), preventing the doctor from administering memory tests, and paying assiduous attention to careful dress. And we realize that these diversions—and indeed many of the residents’ quirks, including Emile’s tricks—function to alleviate the boredom of the facility with its well-intentioned but limited activities. Reading in Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal about Dr. William Thomas introducing 100 parakeets into a nursing home, I longed to drop another hundred birds into this story to supplement the characters’ desperate attempts to inject meaning and color into their waning lives.
The clock winds down. The blind Leon loses his temper and assaults (possibly kills) his roommate Joseph for snoring. Marcel, with more advanced Alzheimer’s, has been transferred upstairs, and devoted wife Georgette goes along to care for him. Ernest, also: He accuses Émile of stealing possessions that he had in fact hidden himself. Then he puts feces in the treasure box of another resident—a prank rather appealingly spirited, given Ernest’s buttoned-up history. And he is at last moved upstairs. Now comes the wonderful twist, for Émile changes. Previously, he had swindled his neighbors, professed happiness at never having married, and declared his scorn for those who care for debilitated spouses. But now Émile misses Ernest, and he moves upstairs himself, living on the dreaded upper floor to look after his old roommate and help feed him. You are never too old to develop as a person. What an ending! As for Adrienne, she decides to join Mrs. Rose on her delusionary train ride. It’s more diverting than being lonely.
Roca’s art draws on the clear-line style commonly found in many European comics, gentle caricatures with restrained pastel coloring. Both reality and fantasy are shown with charming near-realism. In her Orient Express delusion, Mrs. Rose is an exotic young beauty. We also see the aliens Gilberte fears, and the desert legionnaires post where Joseph fancies himself assigned. But in Ernest’s dementia-affected vision towards the end, Émile becomes a faint outline without details or color and then disappears entirely into a blank page. Roca has said that he wanted to do the story for his parents, and he based some of the characters on his family and friends’ families. He did additional research by visiting nursing homes and collecting anecdotes.
The story has much to offer those in the elder care field about understanding their clients and about difficulties in caring for them. In Wrinkles, the facility’s staffers are shown as well-meaning and refreshingly tolerant of the elders’ libidinal urges, but with limited skills and creativity. Moreover, there are too few on duty during peak periods. Perhaps overworked, they forget to follow up on resident requests, mix up medications, fail to intervene in escalating conflicts, and seem unable to learn what the seniors really want and to give it to them. From the residents’ point of view, excitement, stimulation, and rewarding relationships are in heartbreakingly short supply.
Yet as a gently humorous and very moving tribute to the brave humanity of people like Ernest and Émile and Adrienne, Wrinkles has much to offer casual readers as well, who will be in the same situation as the three elders if they are lucky enough to grow old enough. Actually, it’s an introduction to that not-so-happy ending for all of us, ourselves and our family members—if we’re lucky enough to reach advanced age. But we do need those parakeets, or something like that.