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Meeting Your Heroes…Kinda — A Review “Dreamers of the Day”

Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the Day created by Beth Barnett

“Immediately after quitting her nine-to-five to pursue comics, Beth embarks on a life-changing research trip to Oxford University. In this bittersweet and beautiful book, Beth delves into the life of enigmatic war hero Lawrence of Arabia, and transforms her own.”

— From the back sleeve of Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the Day is half a biography and half a memoir about the author Beth Barnett as much as it is about T.E. Lawrence. This is actually quite similar to the much-beloved Maus, but while Art Spiegelman tried to better understand his complicated relationship with his father through the Holocaust, Barnett is learning about someone she looks up to. Barnett isn’t just geeking out though. The journey also allows Barnett to understand how complex Lawrence’s legacy was and have a more mature, appreciative understanding of him. She is able to turn that story into an entertaining comic through an easy-to-read story structure accompanied by beautiful, inviting art that had me feeling like I was on the adventure with her.

The story structure of Dreamers of the Day has two ongoing narratives, both narrated by Barnett. One is T.E. Lawrence’s story: where he was born, how he grew up, what influenced him to become an archaeologist, and why he joined the Arab Revolt. The other narrative is about Barnett’s journey to London, her experience getting there and some of the weird, sad, and memorable things that occur. In one scene, Barnett earnestly asks her husband if she can go to London, and he gives her the cheekiest support ever.

Dreamers of the Day

I rather love this approach because they’re very relatable moments between the history lessons about T.E. Lawrence. Not that those are bad. In fact, they’re quite intriguing and give a human portrait of the man; same with Barnett. I feel like I’m on the journey and learning with her instead of being lectured. It’s fun, exciting, and makes learning about Lawrence something more adventurous than reading from a textbook.

A huge component to making the structure effective is Barnett’s art style. There isn’t a whole lot of details in the illustrations and no coloring whatsoever. The comic is completely black and white except for the front cover. Barnett keeps her style stripped down to basics, portraying her characters (including herself) as bean-eyed cartoon characters that remind me a whole lot of Herge’s Tintin. The style of these characters honestly makes them just as expressive and alive as more realistic artists like Steve Dillon. Even though I said that the art style is simple, that doesn’t stop Barnett from drawing settings that are rich with character, marked by their distinctive cultural architect. Her use of inking for shadow in particular gives these places a feeling of life and age.

Dreamers of the Day

The most outstanding part of the art is that there are virtually no panel borders. Most scenes are compiled together in a sequential collage. If there are any borders, they tend to be organic ones like vines or tree limbs. Without lines or gutter space to box it in, the art is allowed to have leg room to fully form and capture the scope of a scene both visually and emotionally. I felt like I was allowed to be in the scene with Barnett, to fully understand why she loves Lawrence so much. It was an intimate read that gave me the opportunity to understand her love, not just to know facts for the sake of knowing.

So, the art and writing make Dreamers of the Day a functioning book. All well and good. But does it serve a greater literary purpose? Is it not just enjoyable but expand my mind and become cognizant of new cosmic paradigms? Kind of an unnecessarily tall order. Although we’ll see.

Honestly, it took me some time to think about what the theme of the book is. Originally, I would have probably said that it’s about how fun history is and that it takes an adventurous spirit to learn it. That’s definitely one, however, after reading the page below, I realized there was another, deeper theme at work:

Dreamers of the Day

For context, this image comes after her visit to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. During this visit, she sees many beautiful pieces of Muslim art on display. However, she knows that these items were procured under suspicious circumstances. She explains how this is a common issue in Archaeology, often justified by referring to these appropriations as acts of preservation. There is a lot of moral grayness in the field, although it remains an important one.

Barnett has a similar revelation with T. E. Lawrence. His participation in the Arab Revolt didn’t result in the best outcomes, despite his altruistic decisions. The United Kingdom, of which Lawrence served, would make choices that later resulted in conflict the Middle East faces today. Although Lawrence later denounced the U.K. government and became a pariah, his service to an imperialistic nation is still evident.

In the end, acknowledging Lawrence’s flaws doesn’t damper Barnett’s admiration. It just means she comes to a better understanding of him. The framing of the page above, I think, really illustrates that point. I get a sense of confidence from looking at the back of Barnett’s head. There are, in fact, many pages and images similar to this throughout Dreamers of the Day, allowing an intuitive sense of growth much better illustrated than if Barnett simply declared she had learned something.

One essential detail I haven’t touched on yet is how Barnett looks up to Lawrence as a queer icon. Based off of Lawrence’s personal letters gathered over time, historians theorize that Lawrence was gay. Barnett takes this theory a step further and adds that he was gay-ace. While he felt romantic affection for men, he struggled with sexual intimacy. Barnett is bisexual and identifies as non-binary while going by she/her pronouns. She demonstrates masculine fashion in real life as she does in the comic. Interestingly, she looks very much like T.E. Lawrence.

Before anyone jokes about stalker fans, Barnett isn’t projecting herself onto Lawrence. She knows that they are separate people. However, the LGBT+ community is short of historical icons due to history being straight-washed for many, many years. Finding out that there were people in their community who made huge impacts on the world, for better or worse, is always monumental.

Knowing Lawrence’s sexuality further informs Barnett’s understanding of him as a complex person. The reason he joined the Arab Revolt was his Syrian friend, Selim Ahmed. Lawrence wanted to protect Ahmed and defend his home. Between the fighting, Lawrence took every opportunity to make sure Selim was out of harm’s way. This might seem like a petty reason to fight, but the truth is that human history is inseparable from human drama. We have fought wars, formed nations, and committed acts both grand and grave for reasons straight of a soap opera.

Dreamers of the Day

At the end of the day, Lawrence had the same desires and fears as Barnett or any of us. He was an icon of history yes, but still just a person. People are flawed, including our heroes, sometimes more than others. However, that doesn’t mean we have to denounce them. Barnett demonstrates how learning about a person, not putting them on a pedestal and accepting their flaws, can create a more mature understanding of them. After all, they’re only human.

Except Hitler. He was just a bad dude.

Dreamers of the Day may not be as in-depth as other graphic novels of its kind, but it’s a delightful light read. Barnett’s approach to storytelling is intimate and fun. By the end, the reader truly understand Barnett’s love of Lawrence. This is actually book one of a planned trilogy which hopefully builds upon the strengths of the first and paints an even greater portrait of both Barnett and Lawrence, expanding the themes on display to a satisfying conclusion.

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Review: Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the Day, the self-published graphic novel from cartoonist Ned Barnett (Hallo Spaceboy) is a strange, yet beautiful beast. It’s one part travelogue/diary comic, another part a teaser trailer for his upcoming trilogy of graphic biographies of T.E. Lawrence, and another part a look into how archival research is conducted with a focus on emotions rather than technicalities. The comic is about Barnett’s solo research trip to Oxford to learn more about T.E. Lawrence for an upcoming graphic novel and also does an excellent job of sketching the points of his life and work that he is most interested in. (Throughout this review, I will be calling the protagonist of the comic, Ned, and its creator, Barnett.)

Dreamers of the Day is a comic powered by emotion and enthusiasm, and you can see it in the heart eyes, stars, and smiles every time that Ned finds something cool about T.E. Lawrence or finds something helpful for his research. Barnett also does a good job of setting up Lawrence’s importance to history, and that he was a polymath with interests ranging from Crusader castles and nation-building to motorcycles and book design. I learned a lot about the Middle East during and after World War I from this comic like how Lawrence wanted to help establish an Arab country called the Kingdom of Hejaz, but was co-opted by French and British imperialism and later the Sauds, who annexed Saudi Arabia. Barnett does an excellent job of connecting centuries-old history to contemporary times by connecting the Sauds’ actions to Saudi Arabian human rights violations as well as his frank and beautiful discussions of Lawrence’s possible asexuality.

Dreamers of the Day

The art of Dreamers of the Day is rendered in an approachable way veering towards the iconic side of Scott McCloud’s picture plane. Barnett draws his figures like Herge, and it fits the tone of the story as Ned runs from college/library/museum to college/library/museum and follows Lawrence’s exploits from his college and childhood days in Oxford to his travels around the world, especially the archaeological dig in Carchemish, Syria. A recurring theme in the comic (Especially in the early going.) is Ned getting lost and being afraid about being late to various things like a lecture or archives consultation. These panels make the comic relatable and give it nervous energy towards the beginning. Barnett balances these scenes of extreme passion with drawings of flowers that are a reminder of Lawrence’s interest in design, beauty, and Islamic art and are the spoonful of sugar that make the exposition go down.

Dreamers of the Day

Even though he uses simple, vivid images, Oxford and its confusing geography and lack of modern signage become almost a character in the comic. I especially love the heavy inking that Barnett uses after a page of normal, boring English countryside becomes Gothic architecture, windows, and genuine bastion of learning. The early days that Ned spends in Oxford are some of my favorite parts of the comic with plenty of positive reaction shots, especially when he has to take an oath to protect the famous Bodleian Library before he does research there. Ned (and Barnett’s) passion for his topic of study is infectious, and there are many parallels between him and Lawrence, who was a lifelong learner and even started bringing artifacts to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum as a young boy.

Barnett uses these heavy blacks any time there’s a big point he wants to drive home or is feeling especially emotional in Dreamers of the Day. For example, all the windows in TE Lawrence’s childhood home are black, not just because it’s an empty old house, but because of his sad childhood where his mother and father took him and his brothers from town to town so people would forget that they were illegitimate.

Barnett also does a lovely trick of white text on a black background for a few scenes like ones pertaining to Lawrence’s death, the death of his best friend in Carchemish, and the aforementioned Saudi Arabian human rights violations. These could have been prevented if Lawrence and the Kingdom of Hejaz is succeeded, but Barnett doesn’t spend much time on hypotheticals instead talking about how much he has to learn about the world around him and how things work.

Dreamers of the Day is an enjoyable and educational read from Ned Barnett, who by inserting himself and his own enthusiasm in the narrative as well as using a minimalist, yet heavy on the emotions art style, makes the life and work of TE Lawrence accessible and inspiring in 2019.

Story/Art: Ned Barnett
Story: 8.8 Art: 9.0 Overall: 8.9 Recommendation: Buy

Ned Barnett provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

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