ATAR GULL by Fabien Nury and Brüno
With Brüno's gorgeous art perfectly reflecting each character's dark demons, ATAR GULL's tale of slavery, family, and revenge takes us on a riveting journey. Readers will remain stunned with its fast-paced plot twists as well as with Fabien Nury's ability to craft compelling characters that remain memorable long after the story's grim conclusion.
95 %
Dark and devastating
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Written by Fabien Nury with art by Brüno, ATAR GULL OR THE TALE OF A MODEL SLAVE depicts the drawn-out emotional devastation faced by a former slave. Adapted from an 1831 French novel by Eugène Sue, this comic’s muted, shadowy artwork mimics the deepening pain of our protagonist. Its swift-paced storyline provides eerie snapshots of the savageries Gull experiences throughout his life. Nury and Brüno have created a devastating world that perfectly shows Gull’s reasons for spiraling out of control.

At its core, ATAR GULL’s greatest strength is in its portrayal of multiple forms of brutality. The creators lay bare some subtler, psychological forms of cruelty alongside more blatant evils that Atar Gull and other slaves face. In this way, readers see firsthand the effects of prolonged emotional and physical pain on a person’s identity.

Image courtesy of Europe Comics

ATAR GULL: Cruelty Casts Long Shadows

Within ATAR GULL’s grim world, readers journey alongside slave Atar Gull as he embarks on the Middle Passage from Africa to Jamaica. Along the way, he witnesses cruelties such as a female slave’s prolonged assault and the casual tossing of dead slaves into the ocean. Along the way, pirates take over the ship, though they are no less brutal and profit-seeking than the original slave-trading captain. We then witness the day-to-day toilings of Atar and his fellow slaves living on Master Tom Will’s Greenview Plantation. Dark plot twists involving murder, long-suppressed rage, and revenge ensue.

Throughout their adaptation, Nury and Brüno pair narration and illustration to expose the darkest portions of human nature. Each conversation shows often-vast gaps between how characters act and how they present themselves to others. For instance, Tom Will describes himself to friend Beaufry as a caring master, yet his words hide a deep-rooted apathy for his slaves’ humanity. Similarly, we only truly see how deep Gull’s psychological scars run when we see how easily he feigns obedience towards his master. Since we have already glimpsed his plan for revenge, this divide between his outward loyalty and his inner thoughts hints at the depths he is about to plunge.

Brüno’s art renders every face craggy, deeply shadowed, and ultimately impossible to read. His muted color palette of mostly dull purples, blues, and oranges portrays a world without light or hope. Additionally, he contrasts these colors primarily with thick black shadow. In many cases, a background scene or a character’s face is entirely black, creating a vastness of negative space. Characters like Gull often appear swallowed whole by the darkness around them.

Fabien Nury and Brüno Talk Tyler Cross and Atar Gull at NYCC 2017

Myth-Busting: “Model” Slaves…

Above all, ATAR GULL debunks the idea that there were shades of gray within the institution of slavery. Specifically, it hones in on two pervasive stereotypes: that of “model” slave and well-intentioned slave owner. Atar plays the role of a “perfect” slave. He appears to be happy with his station and earns the trust of his master. Yet, as readers come to see through several sharp plot twists, beneath the surface, Gull boils with barely-contained fury.

For example, though Gull smiles and speaks mildly towards Will, we see his face contorted in shadow when Will is not looking. The years of being treated as an object appear to have taken their emotional toll. He can’t shake free his desire for revenge. Still, this long-suppressed rage finally springs forth in a skillfully executed last scene. By allowing Gull to have the final word, the creators provide a satisfying, if temporary, means for Gull to finally express himself as Will’s equal.

Image courtesy of Europe Comics

…Don’t Forget “Benevolent” Slave-Owners

Nury skillfully characterizes Tom Will as a man wearing a mask. Specifically, Will feigns the role of an endearing slave owner who cares for his “childlike” slaves and doesn’t wish them harm. However, pull off the mask and you’ll see nothing more than a man deeply concerned with profits. Will’s callous treatment of his slaves, contrasted with his proclamations of kindness towards them, inflicts and entrenches psychological pain on them.

For example, Atar is punished after saving a female slave’s life, as he damaged expensive machinery in the process. In addition, Will’s profit-driven false accusation that an elderly slave (Gull’s own father) stole property leads to the man’s hanging. The ease with which he maneuvers such a ploy serves as the straw that breaks Atar Gull’s back. In the end, each interaction Will has with his slaves involves a small, seemingly insignificant moment for him. Yet, readers can see how for his slaves, these moments of being denied one’s humanity would inevitably impact one’s psyche. They emphasize that the role of slave and slave owner is not gray but strictly black and white.

Addressing Racial Trauma in BLACK

Road to Hell: Good Intentions Gone Awry

In the end, Fabien Nury and Brüno’s ATAR GULL is a masterful, must-read account of the potent ways in which slavery degrades and dehumanizes those subjected to it. At times, the characters and narrative run the risk of feeling symbolic of larger themes about the institutions they portray. However, critically, the graphic novel portrays through complex images and dialogue a vast array of violence enacted on slaves. In addition, it sharply questions the still-present notions that “benevolent” forms of slavery existed. Inevitably, this harrowing tale paints a devastating picture of slavery’s ability to erode the spirit. Its complex characters and dark plot twists show how this institution obliterated the humanity of every party involved.

This graphic novel is available for purchase now. Find it here.

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