After cutting his teeth on a number of impressive self-published minis in recent years, it was only a matter of time until Thomas Lampion made his full-length graphic novel debut, and with the recent Birdcage Bottom Books publication of The Burning Hotels, that moment has arrived — or maybe it was already here? I mean, yeah, we know that “time is a flat circle” and all that, but even still — synchronicities and repeating patterns throughout history usually don’t figure as prominently as they do here in comics unless they’re written by a certain bearded fellow named Moore.
Yes, this books is a memoir, but it’s a highly inventive memoir, Lynchian in both its structure and imagery, firmly grounded (both in the past and the present) yet nevertheless hallucinatory and even a touch phantasmagoric. It’s unique, that’s for sure — and effectively so, at that. It’s also strangely affecting and even, after a fashion, optimistic — not so much because it offers an ultimately life-affirming message or anything so cheaply and blatantly false, but because it’s a reminder that time have always sucked, yet somehow we’ve gotten by.
Welcome, then, to the redneck hinterland of Hot Springs, N.C., hometown of our author, and a place circumstance has forced his return to. Out of work, coming off a breakup, and eking out a subsistence living on disability, Lampion’s present oddly echoes his mother’s past in that both got the fuck outta Dodge at 18, only to come back in somewhat ‘tail-‘twixt-legs fashion for entirely different reasons. He knows this because he’s been whiling away the pandemic researching his family history, and to a certain extent that of the town itself — and to say “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is to sell it all bit too short, because there’s real poetic resonance to so much of Lampion’s relating of events both then and now. With an economy of words and a sparse, Ben Day dot-plastered style of illustration (when he’s not drawing in black and white), Lampion uses a little to communicate a hell of a lot. And hells both personal and collective are where we spend a pretty good chunk of our time here.
Which would, I suppose, call up imagery of fiery infernos and the like, and Hot Springs (sheesh, even the name!) has certainly seen its fair share of those — hence this book’s title. And given that the third and final hotel fire Lampion guides us to and through took place in the midst of the 1918 flu pandemic, well — let’s just say that if I owned a Holiday Inn Express in the area right now, I’d be looking long and hard at putting it up for sale. Not that I would expect to get much.
What you can expect to get plenty from, however, is Lampion’s superbly heartfelt story, as he elliptically bobs and weaves between then and now, or rather several thens and a singular now, tracing his family tree right into the soil of the town it’s rooted in, and finding that home is someplace you never really leave, even when you do. His estranged relationship with his father, his close ties with his mother — these are larger facets of his life now that he’s back home, but he took them with him when he split, too, and the extent to which “leaving” is possible in any more than a physical sense is one interesting question among many that Lampion explores herein. His line is thick, as is his lettering, but laying it on thick isn’t something the tone of his narrative does — he’s a tour guide through his own life, and the collective life of his hometown, but he’s not writing a brochure for the local tourism board; rather, he’s just as much an observer himself, feeling things anew as the memories flow back and fresh facts are uncovered. We may be through with the past, but remember — the past is never through with us.
And the simple truth is — I wasn’t ready to be through with this book when the last page rolled around. Oh, sure, it’s an entirely apropos, even satisfying, conclusion in its own way, but I’m not ashamed to admit to being greedy : I wanted more. Lampion has crafted something delicate and austere and true here, one of the most utterly unique memoir comics in a long time. As he — and we — take tepid steps into an uncertain future, perhaps all we really need to know about where and who we came from is that they got us this far, warts and all. Where we go from here? That’s on us.
The Burning Hotels is available for $10.00 from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/collections/comic-books/products/the-burning-hotels
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