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.
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.
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:
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.
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.