Reviewed: The Cavalier Mr. Thompson
by Rich Tommaso
(Published by Recoil Graphic Novels and distributed by Fantagraphics, 2012)
The Cavalier Mr. Thompson by Rich Tommaso is the beginning of a journey. A work of fiction set in a Prohibition-era oil town in Texas, Cavalier is the first in a planned series of graphic novels featuring protagonist Sam Hill.
Sam is a dutiful teenage son running himself ragged trying to balance school and long shifts at his unreliable father’s Cavalier Hotel. These details of Sam’s teenage life are Tommaso’s tribute to the real-life story of pulp-crime fiction writer Jim Thompson. Sam is likable and earnest, and although we flash back to his birth and learn about his family, he plays a relatively minor role in the main action of the story. Instead, the plot focuses on the new hotel detective and ex-boxer, Nick Ford, and the suspicious drifter Ross Thompson, who has taken a room at the hotel. The back stories of Ford, Thompson, and the rest of the large cast of characters represent a well-researched exploration into the period and the historical details on the part of Tommaso.
The attention to detail in Cavalier is no doubt related to the ten-year period Tommaso spent developing the story. For Cavalier as a whole, details are a double-edged sword. In terms of world-building, specifics are beneficial, and Tommaso has successfully integrated history with his imagination.
The visual details are the ones that work. Tommaso draws roads worn with treads, slicked-back hair, and rooms populated with period-appropriate dialogue, furniture, telephones, hatboxes, and radios. These visual details are worth mentioning because in comics in general, and period comics in particular, well-researched environments, props, costumes, and the like are what give stories a visual texture, making the panels more real and engaging. Tommaso populates his environments with character designs that bare a similarity to Frank King’s Gasoline Alley newspaper strip, lending Cavalier a liveliness specific to cartoons—with deep shrugs, long strides, and sound effects like “Flump!”
However, the specific details that make Tommaso’s drawings richer become distracting when they are applied to the narrative. Cavalier is heavy in exposition, or background information. There is, for example, the flashback to Sam’s birth that is never connected to the plot, new minor characters are continually introduced that often have little or no impact on the story or other characters, and a significant amount of time is spent on the life of Sam’s father, when all the reader needs to know is how he affects Sam. Too much exposition makes it difficult for the reader to figure out which information is meaningful, and which is not. In comics, exposition is telling instead of showing in the literal sense, and it can become disengaging when the text and images aren’t integrated.
The most fundamental problem with Cavalier is that its purpose is to deliver expository information. Consider one of the most important aspects of any book: when it begins and when it ends. For Cavalier, the first Sam Hill novel, setting the scope of the book was something that Tommaso acknowledges having trouble with. On Cavalier’s interior cover, Tommaso describes having to choose which stage in Sam’s life to begin the story. He decided to start with the teenage Sam, “even though it wouldn’t be the most exciting place to begin.” The lack of inherent excitement in this stage of Sam’s life may explain his minor role in the majority of the story. It also raises the question: Why not start somewhere else? In Cavalier, the reader is given a lot of information about Sam: his family background, his goals, and his relationship with his father. It could be argued that the story of Sam Hill would actually be stronger if these aspects of his character weren’t laid bare so directly and so early in his story. In short, it may have been best to begin with book two.
It isn’t until the very end of The Cavalier Mr. Thompson that Sam finally shoves off into the world, where he will, presumably, begin his adventure. Although the novel is heavy with background information, an interesting world is set up around Sam, one that history tells us will soon be thrown into turmoil. It’s possible that heavy exposition in this first Sam Hill novel will unburden the rest of the series and allow it to have a stronger structure, raised stakes, and a more active protagonist. However, beginning Sam Hill’s journey at a point that is not very exciting creates a significant risk that readers of the first book may not return for the second. As the premier book in the series, The Cavalier Mr. Thompson will be judged best in hindsight, in the context of the complete story arc. For now, though, The Cavalier Mr. Thompson ends at the beginning of the story.