“Days of Sand” is set during the Great Depression and inside the Dust Bowl, itself, but it’s about so much more than that.
The Dust Bowl is a disaster for the overpopulation of farmers in the midwest, many of whom are fleeing to California. Those who are left behind or don’t want to go, however, are having a rough time.
Enter John Clark, photographer…
Credits, Like Rain, Follows the Farmers
Writers: Aimée de Jongh
Artist: Aimée de Jongh
Colors: Aimée de Jongh
Letterer: None Credited
Translator: None Credited
Published by: Dargaud/Europe Comics
Number of Pages: 147
Original Publication: 2021
What’s Going On?
John Clark is a young newspaper photographer in New York City. During the Depression, he applies for a job with a photo agency run by the federal government. They’re looking for someone to cover the Dust Bowl situation amongst the farmers in Oklahoma. The goal is to create pictures that show the desperate situation there to spur on public support and government funding for those in need.
John gets the job, but is immediately a fish out of water. He sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the locals, has to navigate the new world he’s visiting, and makes friends with an assortment of locals. There’s one he meets near the end that I think will prove to be the major personal story for John in the second book. (I also suspect it ties into the opening of this book, which is the biggest open loop of the book.)
He’s in a race to finish his assignment and the shot list they gave him, all while navigating the politics of the situation and the journalistic ethics he’s accustomed to. Can he do the job while staying true to his beliefs? Are his beliefs as important as he thought, or is it just the set of rules he’s used to?
The Photographer’s Life (A Personal Story and Photographic History Lesson)
About fifteen years ago, I got very interested in photography. I bought my first digital SLR, listened to all the podcasts, read a bunch of books, watched a lot of videos, and took lots of walks through nature taking pictures of random things. Some of you may even remember my photography website, which sadly no longer exists, but gave me the media outlet I needed to shoot a few concerts back in the day.
It’s an interesting world and one which does have some parallels to comics, in that it’s a creative pursuit with an industry that has its own set of rivalries and politics. It’s also a career choice that’s becoming very hard to justify, since everyone has a camera in their pocket now and fewer people than ever are willing to pay for a photographer outside of weddings. Even the venerable institution of newspaper photographer has collapsed; it’s been outsourced to freelancers or replaced by either the article writer with their cell phone or eyewitness pictures from their social media.
While many in the world of comics thought that digital would be the end of their careers, digital has turned into an additional channel for readers, at least in North America. It hasn’t replaced the world of print. Yet.
In photography, digital has been both a life saver and a career killer. Again, it’s meant that everyone has a camera in their pocket and pictures are a dime a dozen. (“Good” pictures are still trickier, but who has the budget for those?)
As this is happening, questions of ethics in photojournalism are coming up. The issues in the modern era have to do with photo manipulation and post processing. Photoshop makes it so easy to make any photo “perfect.”
The guidelines for this have generally been that you’re not allowed to tweak the photo past what used to be done in the darkrooms of old, as far as lightening or darkening certain sections of the photo, basically. (Ansel Adams was a great photographer, but also a wizard in the darkroom.) Removing items is not allowed, nor is moving them around. World famous photographers from the old school have been caught up in scandals by using these new technologies.
Now, obviously, in the Dust Bowl days there was no Photoshop. There wasn’t even Microsoft Paint, it was that long ago.
But there were still issues of journalistic ethics. In this book, young Dave sees his job as essentially being photojournalism. Take pictures only of what you see, leave nothing behind, etc.
The government that’s hiring him to do the work wants very specific pictures for very particular purposes. “Propaganda” might be a strong word, but they have needs for these pictures and that’s what they’re paying him for. They lay it out with an example at the very beginning, but it takes him some real world experience in Oklahoma before he realizes exactly what that means and what he’ll need to do.
It starts off very awkwardly, indeed. de Jongh does a good job in showing the reader how this works with two specific scenes that lay out the problem and the danger without coming off as preachy. It’s something she does well throughout the book: There’s always a visual element in any explanation to help it blend more naturally into the story and properly use the visual medium of comics.
Oh, and John’s job comes from the same program that brought us Dorothea Lange’s famous picture, “Migrant Mother.” Even if you don’t recognize her name or that photo’s title, you’ve likely seen the picture before. You can also see all the pictures in that sequence that Lange took now. And, even more interestingly, you can see where the famous image was retouched in an attempt to remove a thumb seen holding back in the tent in the bottom right corner. It’s still there and ghostly, but nobody ever notices it because the rest of the composition is so strong. Here’s the original picture. (I love the internet.)
In what is very much a quiet and slow burn book, to me it’s the photojournalist ethics that Dave has to fight with inside of him that makes this story so interesting. It’s not something that’s the center of very many comics. About the closest I can think of might be Peter Parker with his Spider-Man pictures, but he isn’t faking those. They’re real. It’s J. Jonah Jameson who contorts them beyond the truth.
I think the story will get more personal in the second book, but for now I appreciate the photography aspect of it all. de Jongh has done her research on cameras of the era, too, and how they’re used. Everything I saw in the book rings true. Sand and dust is still a camera killer to this day, too. But it’s really great to see those old fashioned cameras with their bellows and large format film cartridges and all the rest.
de Jongh’s Art
I love de Jongh’s artwork. This book feels like some of the indy books I remember reading a couple of decades ago. It has a bit of that Pia Guerra’s “Y the Last Man” look, but with more brush strokes and thicker lines.
The characters are well cartooned and the backgrounds are realistic. She mixes things up well with camera angles and distances. The wide angle shots and double page spreads feel very cinematic, but this is far from being a series of storyboards for a movie pitch. This takes advantage of all sorts of comics tricks, particularly with how she varies panel sizes and shapes to suit the moment. Even the most basic three tier panels have something in them to keep the pages looking interesting.
De Jongh does a spectacular job in capturing a mood and a feeling, both in New York City at the beginning of the book, and in Oklahoma for the rest of it. The city feels like Will Eisner’s New York City. It feels grey and dirty, with shafts of light breaking between the buildings where the sun can find the spare room. The sky is a part of the same monotone as the city, itself. The cobblestone roads and the brick buildings are populated by disheveled looking people in bulky long jackets over sleeveless white t-shirts.
There are plenty of moments — and entire pages — of de Jongh showing off her interpretation of the city. It almost goes too fast. By page 50, John is in his car and driving across the country, through farmlands and flatlands.
When John gets to Oklahoma, de Jongh’s art only gets more spectacular. She does a great job in drawing a believable landscape that’s not just dry and arid, but also filled with small particulate matter that might get caught in the wind en masse and cover everything back up. She manages this all with her brush and ink, but the colors pull everything together to bring the feeling of the dusty mid-West into focus.
It’s bleak. Nothing can grow anymore because of the lack of water. Tumbleweeds blow across the street when Jon drives by. Reds and oranges to signify the heat and the dust that fill the pages set in Oklahoma.
I can’t underestimate the important of the color in this book. So much of the finished look is done with the colors. There are great textures being used to give the book a feeling of being 100 years old, while also helping to show the dust storms and forces of nature that just pen and ink couldn’t sell as well.
There are some black and white photo frames that look a little bit too clean. I’ll forgive that, though, because their composition, detail, and hand written markings around then look so authentic.
At the beginning of each chapter, deJongh includes a black and white photograph from the era. It’s a great addition to the book. The photos are in the public domain, pulled from the Library of Congress. One is even by Dorothea Lange.
It’s no wonder the book looks so authentic: de Jongh made a ten day trek to the U.S. to visit Oklahoma and California to see the real sites she draws in this book. She has an account of the trip on her blog. It sounds like an amazing trip.
I’m jealous that she got to look through all of Lange’s contact sheets like that. I got the chills just looking at the pictures of that collection. They didn’t have iPhones back then. Getting real photographs on location from that time is an eye into the past that’s not as easy as going to YouTube to look up. We’re so spoiled these days…
A Sense of Location
I love how de Jongh creates an environment and a location with this book. It’s in the details, often very small. A lot of it clearly came from her research.
It’s an unusual thing to say in a book that doesn’t feature lots of detailed backgrounds. Most of the backgrounds in Oklahoma are a cloud of dust. There are strong establishing shots to set up a scene, but everything in the background fades out after that. It creates an eerie feeling.
All of the stuff that’s in focus is well detailed and feels natural. The wooden slats of the ramshackle homes the people live in, the bric-a-brac they fill their cars with as they leave for California, the shelves of the local general store. It all fits together.
All of the stuff that’s in focus is well detailed and feels natural. The wooden slats of the ramshackle homes the people live in, the bric-a-brac they fill their cars with as they leave for California, the items along the walls of the local reception. It all fits together.
de Jongh isn’t afraid to take a moment to let a scene breathe or to let John take in the new world around him. He’s our point of view character, after all. As he absorbs the scene, we should be given that moment, was well.
As a city boy, he’s learning so much from this trip. He’s seeing animals in the wild he’s likely never seen before. He’s seeing the dust dunes and the bumpy roads and the failed farms and the wide open plains that are being choked by this dust. It’s like living in the desert, but in the middle of farm country.
You experience this book as much as you read it, thanks to de Jongh’s artwork.
Sure, she could have cut a lot of pages out to get straight to the plot. She could push things along faster and probably tell the whole story in nearly half the pages. But that would lose all the character of the book. I love the fact that this book pulls you into this other world and lets you look around. There’s a common misconception that European comics are all plot and no character. There’s lot of character in here and even more world building. It’s just that the world is a particular part of America at a particular point in time. The situation is just so alien and extreme that it feels like another world, entirely.
OK, But If I Had to Pick One Nit…
The book starts at the end of the story, with Dave filling in a grave.
He thinks to himself:
There’s no record scratch or freeze frame of fast motion accompanying it, but still.
It’s about the most cliched way possible to wrap up the opening. I admit I chuckled a little bit.
I feel bad about that, because the book is so great. It’s just that this storytelling trick has become so cliche now that it’s a bit of a running gag. Didn’t one of the Deadpool movies make a gag out of it, too? “Ratatouile” has some variation of the line in its opening.
One entirely random thing I just thought of while looking at this panel again: He reminds me a bit of a cleaned up version of everyone’s second favorite undertaker, Stern, doesn’t he?
Missing Credits: Translation and Lettering
Unfortunately, the book doesn’t have credits for the lettering or for the translation. It’s possible that de Jongh did both, but I don’t know.
I will say that I like the lettering, though. It fits the art well, using a similar hand crafted vibe. I know it’s a fun, but if you stop yourself for looking for the tell-tale signs of that, you’ll see the lettering absolutely blends in with the art. It’s the same font that is used on the French edition of the book.
It mixes in mixed case for John’s diary-like captions while preserving ALL-CAPS for the dialogue. It helps visually separate the two just as much as the rectangular boxes versus the rounder word balloons. The balloons, themselves, have an unsteady and slightly shaken feeling to them. Again, I don’t know whether this is done with a computer (and a slightly uneven line brush tool), or if the strokes are hand drawn. I kind of hope it’s the latter, to be frank.
Yes, though there might be a slight hesitancy in this recommendation because this isn’t the complete story yet. I love the setting and the character and his experiences, but there are still plenty of ways this could go off the rails in the next volume. I have no reason to believe it will, but it is something to consider.
This is the first of two books to tell the story. This book was released as a single 288 page album in France just a month ago. It is broken up into two parts for the digital English market because…. Well, just because. Maybe they’re still translating the second half. Maybe they’re just trying to keep the price lower.
The book is done, though. Hopefully, we see the second part soon.