Always Forever album cover detail by Jordi Lafebre
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“Always Never” by Jordi LaFebre [Review]

Jordi Lafebre is back, but not with “Glorious Summers.” (Yet. Come back at the end of the year, maybe.)

“Always Never” is a book he’s written and drawn on his own, and it’s very impressive.

It’s the oddly feel-good romance you didn’t know you needed in your life.

It’s really good.

Credits in Reverse Time

Always Forever album cover by Jordi Lafebre
Original Title: “Malgré Tout”
Writer: Jordi Lafebre
Artist: Jordi Lafebre
Colors: Clemence Sapin, Jordi Lafebre
Letterer: Cromatik Ltd.
Translator: Montana Kane
Published by: Dargaud/Europe Comics
Number of Pages: 152
Original Publication: 2020

Preamble: Format and Spoilers

This book starts at the end of the story with Chapter 20 and rewinds back to Chapter 1 and the beginning of the saga.

This makes it almost impossible to review this book without spoiling half of it. At the same rate, the book spoils itself, since it begins at the end.

So forgive me if I wind up being a little more vague than usual in this review and concentrate more on the craft and construction.

What’s Going On?

“Always Never” is the story of Ana and Zeno, two love birds separated by space and time. Zeno is the consummate bachelor, sailing all over the world and committing to nobody. Ana has a husband and daughter. She’s the mayor of her small Italian town. But Zeno still holds a place in her heart that she just can’t shake.

This book is about a different shape and kind of love. Make no mistake about it — this is a lighthearted romantic drama set across a long span of time. Nobody gets powers all of a sudden. Nobody turns the corner to see a monster. Demons are in no way involved. (It’s going to be very hard to find a North American publisher for this book.)

It’s a Romantic. Drama.

And it is awesome.

Ana and Zino under their umbrellas, from Jordi Lafebre's "Always Never"

What Ana and Zeno have is not terribly traditional. That’s the point of the book. Lafebre doesn’t shy away from that, constructing scenarios in which parallel themes arise. Whether we’re talking about the physical construction of a heart, the ability for three people to fold a sheet together, or the very birth and death of the universe, itself, Lafebre carefully builds his book to repeatedly ask the question of “Is this love viable? Is it real? Can it work out? How will others handle it?”

On top of it all, Zeno is still working on his dissertation in physics, which amounts to proving that time can move backwards. Lafebre ties that into this story and how it works in reverse chronological order. He’s very thorough…

Yet, it’s not the entirety of the book.

In many ways, this book is a puzzle box. This might be my own problem, since I usually look for construction details in the stories I read. It’s an occupational hazard of sorts, since I review a lot of books.

“Always Never” had me thinking as I read it. Every little detail was something to be pieced together. Is it a harmless discarded one-liner, or is it a hint to what’s going to happen in the next chapter of the book, or five chapters down the line? Things that are minor details in one scene might be the crux of the next. And some obvious questions are the arrow to point at what the next chapter is going to be about.

It’s also a great example of strong storytelling where it’s not the “what” that entertains you so much as the “how” or “why”. You know what’s coming, but how or why did the characters get there? That can provide just as much tension as someone in a dark room turning a corner without knowing what they’re going to see there.

The tension of the secret coming out in "Always Never" pushes the scene forward

Lafebre perfectly starts this style of storytelling in the first chapter, with a line of dialogue that sets up the next chapter, where a line of dialogue sets up the following. You know what has to happen, but you don’t know how the other person is going to react — or “did react”, really. Sometimes, knowing what you’re walking into can be just as dramatic as not knowing. It’s just a matter of when he’ll pull the trigger. The anticipation is the exciting part.

This happens in the earliest chapters where Ana tells someone that someone else knows something. (I’m being vague because of spoilers, sorry.) The next chapter is a scene set between her and that other person, and you know this is where that person finds this thing out. It’s the underlying tension to the whole scene: Everything is going smoothly, but you know there will be a line or two where that secret comes out and the rest of the scene will be about that “revelation” (or lack thereof).

It’s more than just dialogue. Lafebre also uses props and details in his storytelling to carry through the themes of the book and the movements of the story. A quick glance at an item in a silent panel in one chapter sets up something ten or more chapters later. You know it’s important somehow, but you need to wait for that answer.

How important is that couch in the mayor’s office, for example? Where did it come from? What did it replace? What memories does it hold for her? Does the portrait on the wall behind it mean anything?

Just don’t expect a big twist ending in the last chapter. Lafebre does have a bit of a storytelling surprise in the last chapter that you’ll pick up on immediately. It’s pretty smart and lets the final pages beautifully come full circle to the opening.

The Art of Jordi LaFebre

I may be repeating something I’ve written previously in a “Glorious Summers” review here, but it bears repeating, if so:

Lafebre draws characters who act from the tops of their heads to the tips of their fingers and toes. Check out any panel in this book and see how the character is acting. Look at all the angles and the folds in the clothing and the leans of the body. Nobody is boring. Nobody is standing or sitting straight up-and-down. There’s a conscious effect to create characters who are interesting to look at even in the most mundane moments, whether it’s waiting for a phone call or asking someone a simple question.

Picture Kevin Maguire’s faces, but extend that effort out through the entire body.

His characters have motion and take up space in ways that many other artists can’t pull off. Take a look at a couple sets of panels from a sequence in which Zeno and Ana are dancing together to the same music while on the phone:

Ana and Zino dance together in "Always Never"
Ana and Zino dance together in "Always Never"

Just look at them reaching out to each other! They’re turning me into a hopeless romantic…

The music staffs make for a strong design choice, including having it angled to come out towards the reader in that first set. But the two characters mirrored in their movements look and feel animated. It’s not just a drawing of someone dancing. You can feel the motion in there, especially when Lafebre does this set-up three, four, or five times in a row.

They remind me of gesture drawings from some animation school workshop. They perfectly capture the feeling of the movement. The final marks with the little speediness and the scratchier ink work make the whole drawing vibrate with energy.

Lafebre draws clouds in action

(I love the second panel there of Zeno running. His body language is an exaggerated effort. The folds in his pants feel natural. The way his jackets swishes behind him helps sell the movement. And that little cloud coming under his foot is something Lafebre uses a lot in this book — using a cloud for a burst of movement or energy.)

The book is mostly set in a small Italian town, but it’s one that gives Lafebre lots of interesting things to draw, including old buildings, small shops, official government buildings, and a bridge that plays a large role in the middle of the book as a point of on-going concern. Couple that with Zeno’s travels that include the South Pole (penguins!), plains, trains, and a chace through Venice. It’s never a boring book to look at.

Ana walks over the bridge in town. It's a very blue and purple scene.

The colors are super strong in this book, too. The color schemes can shift wildly from chapter to chapter, depending on the location and the context. There are bright orange chapters set outside on sunny days (Chapter 9, featuring a visually stunning phone call, of all things), a green chapter set in a greenhouse (Chapter 11), and lots of blues and purples for night time and rainy scenes (Chapters 13 and 20).

The colors never intrude on the art. Lafebre’s line work rules over all. He doesn’t need color holds to indicate distance. He can control that with line weight and detail.

I keep zooming in on pages to figure out how he’s doing all of this. It feels like he’s shooting straight from pencils for some backgrounds and textural details, while the foreground elements are done in ink to help them stand out.

None of the lines in this book are heavy, solid blacks. It all has, at the very least, a dry brush feel to it. I’d love to know what Lafebre’s tool set for this book was.

The Writing of Jordi Lafebre

Like Guillem March with “Karmen,” Jordi Lafebre is writing his first major work of comic fiction with this book. And he doesn’t take the simple road, as you can tell from the review so far.

He also creates characters who are likable. Zeno might be afraid to commit and he may put some women in bad positions when he runs out on them at the last minute, but he’s also charming, good looking, and an overall lovable rogue. Ana is a super strong character, able to run the town by taking care of its people first, listening to their issues and working to find new solutions. The bridge that dominates her time in office shows again and again what she’s wiling to do to improve the lives of those who voted for her.

Some might point to it as a weakness but there’s no real bad guy in this book. The closest anyone comes to that is the new Mayor who replaces Ana when she retires. He’s the only mean character in the book, really, but he doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. He’s a bit of jerk and a small hindrance when one is needed at a particular time in the plot.

The one criticism of the book that I might entertain is that it’s not very dramatic for a drama. We never get to an issue of life and death. People are more accepting than you might expect them to be. This is not the traditional plot structure of building to a breaking point before the protagonist overcomes all obstacles. It’s a much smoother climb.

But, to my eye, that means there’s no melodrama, and that’s a good thing.

The backwards nature of it doesn’t lead to a Shyamalan plot twist, either. Lafebre doesn’t need to go for the cheap thrills. He’s created two characters you want to understand then want to root for. That’s more than enough.

It’s a very carefully constructed and well-executed story, period. It’s not overwritten or over-explained. All of the usual issues with new writers don’t apply here. Lafebre has obviously learned a lot from working with other people’s scripts…

Riding and Re-Reading

This is a book that’s best read in one sitting. Trust me, it’s worth it. Set aside 30 – 45 minutes and commit to take it all in. You will be using your mind with this book, trying to guess ahead of Lafebre sometimes, while other times getting the timeline straight in your head again. Sometimes, you’ll be impressed with how he brings something back into the story in a way that explains it from earlier in the book, while at other times you’ll be curious to see what something means when it’s so obviously a clue being planted.

The biggest problem is that you’ll need an additional half hour after your first read to read it again. It’s not that it’s difficult to understand, but seeing everything when you know the details in advance helps you to appreciate the building blocks of the story, itself, stripped from the format it’s told in. Both are wonderful, and both should be enjoyed. You paid your money for the book, so now you can get your money’s worth.

By the way, you can read the book in reverse order the second time, if you’d like. That might help you keep everything straight in your mind as you go, also.

Recommended?

Always Forever album cover by Jordi Lafebre

Absolutely. It’s the book I’ve spent the most time with this year already, and that’s in the best possible way. I enjoyed reading it the second time and making connections I missed the first time. I enjoyed seeing things in new lights. It was time well spent. Even as I write this review, I keep getting lost re-reading certain chapters and enjoying the moments. I may have spent too much time talking about the construction of this book because it’s so impressive, but the characters are all interesting and the delivery of this story is really what sells it.

That, and Lafebre’s art, which we knew was great already from books like “Glorious Summers,” but is still improving. This book is a beauty. It’s the kind of book I might buy in French someday, just to own a paper edition of it.

Buy It Now

As I write this, the best price is on Amazon, by a couple dollars.

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4 Comments

  1. I have to admit I haven’t read past your intro – as I would like to read the book first. But I am struck by your point that without superpowers and monsters it’s unlikely to make it in the US. The staying power and market share of the superhero genre is a mystery, especially when such great work exists elsewhere – ironic too, from the country that gave us Schultz and Watterson.

    1. That right there is the best reason to not read one of my reviews. And to your point: It’s almost a running gag that any comic that looks interesting in North America will inevitably suddenly have demons or monsters or aliens in it. It’s very frustrating. It’s almost hilarious that the best westerns in comics today are made in France or Italy. Nobody makes them in America anymore. There’s a bit more diversity with the kids books, to be fair, but those usually wind up being more slice of life or teen drama. (And there’s plenty of that in France, too…)

  2. A lovely book! I took your advice and once I reached the end, I immediately reversed gears and re-read it from the last page to the first which made for a unique and delightful way to experience this wonderful story.

    1. Yay! Happy to hear you liked it! And, yes, doing the reverse read helps you put things into even more perspective and, perhaps, a slightly different kind of story. So much fun.