Writer / Artist
Bootblack graphic novel review
  • North American Publisher / ISBN: NBM - 978-1-68112-296-0
  • Release date: 2019
  • English language release date: 2022
  • UPC: 9781681122960
  • Contains adult content?: yes
  • Does this pass the Bechdel test?: no
  • Positive minority portrayal?: no

Orphaned at a very young age, Al is adaptable enough to survive as a shoeshine boy on the unforgiving streets of depression-era New York. Mikaël’s sample art shows the door closing on his earlier life as a tenement fire kills his family, supplying a harsh early lesson in reality. It takes him until fifteen, though, to understand he needs to consider his future, given a scathing rejection when he asks a girl on a date to the attractions of Coney Island. Unfortunately, the lesson he takes from that isn’t to avoid falling in with the wrong crowd, but doing exactly that in order to make money. However, there is a glimmer of hope as Maggie also has a secret.

As with his previous Giant, Mikaël’s character-driven art is astonishingly good. He’s a workhorse in delivering the crowded streets Al and his pals call home, and the people are designed to stand out for reader identification despite the crowds. They move with a natural grace and there’s a clarity to their emotions to match the richness of the period scenery supplied on page after page in glorious sepia.

Everything is very accomplished apart from the way Mikaël tells Bootblack. It has a cinematic sweep, and in accordance with that he doesn’t want to present a linear story just moving through the years, so there are flashes forward, showing Al signing up for the army, then serving in Europe during World War II, and these are clumsily placed and intrusive. If the first part of the story is to be about the circumstances that led Al to the battlefields, Mikaël would have better arranged Bootblack to begin there and show the remainder as flashbacks. It might be more traditional, but it would have been smoother.

Bootblack combines what was published as two volumes in France, and the second is the more accomplished, concerning the solving of two big mysteries after the tragic incident that ends the first volume. There’s a predictable inevitability to some deaths, and only slightly less predictability to the solution to one mystery being sleight of hand survival in the chaos. Far better is the subtle way we learn about Maggie’s circumstances in the first volume, although it’s spelled out later in case it’s not picked up, and the way Mikaël avoids the sentimentally predictable ending after dangling it front of our faces.

The art carries Bootblack an awful long way, but it’s a story that could have been told more efficiently. However, Mikaël’s third look at the era in Harlem is excellent.