That man on the bench above the happy dog is Brás de Oliva Domingos. We meet him at various ages in his life—32, 21, 28, 41, etc. Every time we meet him, a short while later, he dies.
In keeping with the different times and places we find him in, his death is never the same. Sometimes he dies violently, sometimes peacefully; he dies alternately behind the wheel, in a crosswalk, and too young to have car keys.
The very curious aspect of Daytripper is its suggestion that this man who we see die over and over lives only one life. Thus the Brás we meet in the first issue at 32 had no different a first twenty-one years than the Brás we encounter in the second at 21. He is simply older.
You could be forgiven for assuming that there is more to it than that, that there must be more to it than that. This 32-year-old Brás surely possess additional luck or foresight that helped him avoid a fatal path. Or else he was no different, before, but that this new roll of the dice affected him, gave him a glimpse of his own mortality, or assigned him the consequences of some small altered decision.
Yet the Brás we meet from issue to issue is clearly the same person & the same character. And from issue to issue his history is the same, up to that chronological point, excepting that in this case there is a death shortly before him, and in every other telling the shape of that moment is unknown but un-fatal. So while Daytripper includes an obituary for each Brás, fitting his life to that point into a meaning befitting his particular end, that is the sole significance the story grants to his set of demises. They do not register to Brás, but more importantly, they do not register to the sense the reader has of him, for the book steadfastly avoids assigning the deaths any wider impact. Each death is thus in one issue an organizing principle for a look at Brás and his entire life, and in every other issue a complete non-event without any reverberations.
While this doesn’t cohere philosophically or scientifically, them’s the rules for Daytripper, and the story and the experience of the work as a whole benefit greatly from its total refusal to explain its machinery. The work can accrue intense emotional impacts without sending its character through a roller-coaster narrative. And though these rules aren’t strictly sensical, Moon and Bá establish far more through-lines between its episodes than simply the chronological progression of Brás metaphysically unclear existence. Its form plays with the relationship of death to narrative, that’s basic, but the themes embedded in the details come through just as clearly, and with equal impact. Each issue returns with increasing resonance to the legacy of fathers and their obligations to sons, to what parts of ourselves we have control of and which we must simply accommodate, to how and when we can choose to take control of our lives. Daytripper is about the way we make meaning, in other words, which art, especially beautiful art like this, remains uniquely equipped to address.
The can’t-miss appeal of its high concept and the assurance of its creators aside, Daytripper remains a surprising kind of artistic success. It is by no means flawless, and the interest of the idea can wane for long stretches; I didn’t put down the book and feel it deserved a hardcover or immediate entrance into the canon. It’s good comics, sometimes great. Yet in pushing at the same door at the end of the hallway again and again, spending time with one life and so many possible ends, Daytripper clears out and lays claim to a space in your thoughts with an unexpected persistence. It is unsettling, as any story with this much death should be, but it manages this effect in a gentle fashion, lending you a new perspective for the trouble.
This kind of lasting push from a work of art is uncommon, yet I find it particularly rare from graphic narratives, as I’m no good at reading comics the right way. Daytripper‘s 220 pages are, at root, colored images, yet as I do with all comics, I read its text captions with the pictures serving as illustrations. The rhythm that some readers have for taking in comics is one I’ve never gotten the hang of; while I know I’m supposed to read panel-by-panel, having read a stretch of text makes me want to head to the next stretch of text, without pausing to take in the visual details of where I’m currently looking. While I can’t help but have an appreciation for the aesthetic experience of turning colorful pages, the art only rarely becomes the primary reading material without conscious, distracting effort; I tend to fixate on panels that, through silence or especially dramatic imagery, aren’t complementing the task of the narrative but assuming the sole responsibility of moving it forward.
That deficient style of reading necessarily means that I take from comics only one strand of the meaning they have to offer. And that often means that while much of the information of plot and story and narrative registers, the emotional impact, or the rhythm of the storytelling, can fail to fully connect. I often fear that finding myself taken with a graphic narrative raises the likelihood that the work in question has failed to take full advantage of the vocabulary of the medium, and thus offers too much that I could just as easily have found elsewhere. I suspect my own appreciation to be an inadequacy on the part of the work.
Yet if any story can console me on that point, or provide some comfort to anyone unsure that they’re making the right sense out of what they hope is the whole picture, it is this book, whose main character proceeds oblivious to the blank ghost spaces punctuating his life story, and comes out no worse for the wear. In vividly depicting the meaning of each of Brás’ deaths while rendering them completely insignificant in the one, long, sweep of his life story, Daytripper proves empathetic to those of us who only get a rough sense of what’s going on in front of us. And in its final issues, which are the real knockouts, Daytripper goes from forgiving us our frailties to celebrating them, arguing that we need only have a grasp of the sheer breadth of possibilities, and a respect for our limitations in the face of them, in order to play our part in a narrative.
Brás de Oliva Domingos has the gift of many obituaries. We will have only one. Daytripper makes a good case that this will be enough.