By Joseph O’Brien
Matthew Lickona’s graphic novel “Alphonse” is not your run-of-the-mill pro-life literature.
It tells the story of a fetus named Alphonse who eavesdrops in utero on his mother’s psyche to discover that he’s been slated for destruction at the hands of an abortionist.
What happens next defies description and depiction — yet “Alphonse” accomplishes both.
Perhaps the world’s first preborn anti-hero, Alphonse embarks on an odyssey of retribution fueled by the same heroin that drags his mother to the abortion clinic in the first place. All the same, hiding in the shadow of Alphonse’s desire for revenge, the theme of redemption remains the tempering element that drives the drama even as it challenges both sides of the abortion debate.
Complementing Lickona’s narrative style, Connecticut-based professional artist Chris Gugliotti’s black-ink drawings heighten the story’s suspense, reminiscent of 1950s film noir realism — complete with cinematic close-ups and off-kilter cameralike angles.
The author of 2006’s “Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic” (Loyola Press, $12.95), Lickona has jumped effortlessly from spiritual memoir to graphic novel, packing the panel-to-panel narrative with the same pop-culture markers and guideposts that imbued his reflections of growing up Catholic.
Since being published, the first two installments “Untimely Ripp’d” and “Murder Sleep” (both titles allude to passages in “Macbeth”) of the planned five-issue comic miniseries have provoked critical discussion in the Catholic and secular press on whether abortion should be taboo in literature.
As the complexities of the drama unfold, the story is not, Lickona said, one of simple revenge. As Alphonse grows in awareness, he said, he realizes that his resentment has two possible resolutions.
“I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Alphonse is dying from the day he’s born,” Lickona told Our Sunday Visitor. “He comes into this world in the wrong way, and he’s addicted to heroin from the get-go. He’s hunted [by the abortionist] and it’s hard to imagine him going on to live a normal, happy life. But there is still some peace to be achieved. The goal is to find a way to overcome his estrangement from his mother; there are two ways he can do that — either through revenge or through reconciliation. That’s the tension of the story.”
At first glance, Lickona said, the story’s scenario — that a fetus with superhuman strength and intelligence could escape from an attempted abortion — is outrageous. But he said that the graphic novel reader expects such exaggeration as part of the package.
After accepting the initial premise, “the author can just tell his story without worrying about making political points,” he said. “The story is not told just to provide a context for a political debate.”
Lickona said that it was another cartoon fetus, Gary Cangemi’s “Umbert the Unborn,” a regular comic strip featured in the National Catholic Register, which initially inspired him to write “Alphonse.”
“It was Umbert’s deep cheerful friendliness and puppy cuteness that I responded to,” Lickona explained, acknowledging that his own creation takes on much darker tones than Cangemi’s. “I thought about what it really would be like if you knew you were going to be aborted by your mother. You’d probably be a real SOB. That’s Alphonse.”
But it wasn’t just a reaction to Umbert that aroused Lickona’s muse. He said that he’s always had a desire to write a story with abortion as a key plot point — not to score political points but as a way to explore the issue outside of the usual hazards of polemics and rhetorical shouting matches.
“It seems that the abortion debate is not a debate at all, but a mutual shaking of the heads at the monstrosity of the other side’s position,” he said. “I wanted to write a story that sidestepped the debate and just put things out there in a way that manifested the humanity of everyone involved. I don’t know if that will necessarily get people to reconsider their positions, but maybe it might serve to get them to reconsider the opposition. And that’s something.”
While he acknowledged that the novel contains violence common to most graphic novels, Lickona added that it’s neither gratuitous nor contradictory to the story’s pro-life theme.
“I wanted to tell a story about abortion that was bloody the way abortion is bloody, but not bloody-minded; stark without painting it black and white,” he said.
For some critics, the story’s premise may prove to be a liability for “Alphonse,” given the sensitivity of the abortion issue. Gregory Wolfe, the editor of Image Journal, a Christian literary magazine based in Seattle, Wash., questioned whether the shocking nature of the novel’s premise might unintentionally drive off readers.
“The story is daring and risky,” he said. “There’s not only a risk that ‘Alphonse’ won’t sell, but also the risk that [Lickona] is loading his material with such sensitive and intense material that it seems to overwhelm the storytelling.”
At the same time, Wolfe recognizes that the graphic novel makes an honest attempt to balance the characters on both side of the issue with depth and humanity.
Because of its storytelling potential, Wolfe said, if “Alphonse” sells it could make a unique contribution to the cultural debate over abortion.
“[Lickona] really is filling in a tremendous gap in the culture on an issue which is so taboo it’s hard to fill,” he said. “He’s using this admittedly grotesque, violent medium which is so current in our society to try to get to the point where the drama is fair [to both sides]. Where he’s pitting life versus freedom, to use the most radical distinction, if he succeeds, the story is automatically going to give people pause when they think about these issues in relation to abortion. It becomes a real gain for the cause of life.”
For Catholic writer and critic Eve Tushnet, the combination of conflicting emotions evoked by the novel’s opposing viewpoints makes “Alphonse” an intriguing story. Tushnet has written extensively on Catholic literature and on graphic novels.
“One thing I really like in ‘Alphonse’ is the combination of the spooky, sinister comic art style with this very compassionate and complex story line,” she said. “I also like how he parallels different characters who appear to be on opposing sides of the abortion issue. He manages to make you see their commonalities.”
In the larger cultural picture, Tushnet said, works like “Alphonse” will contribute to returning both sides to a more rational approach — and perhaps even common ground — on the abortion debate.
Citing Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book “After Virtue,” Tushnet said, “MacIntyre uses the debate over abortion as his pre-eminent example of how reasoned discourse has broken down and is no longer being able to reach people because people are coming from radically divergent premises. When that happens the only way you get people back to talking about the same thing even when they disagree is to give them some sort of story or image that can reshape their premises and change what they want to talk about. It is definitely stories like ‘Alphonse’ that make possible any kind of reasoned discussion over abortion.”
Joseph O’Brien writes from Wisconsin.