REVIEW: A Movie Theater Meets Reality in Breakwater

Four panels, or the top half of a page of a comic. Two figures with ponytails speak in all four panels. Panel 1: "So what's upstairs?" "It's actually pretty amazing." Both speakers are in front of a door. Panel 2: "I didn't even know this was here!" "Yeah, used to be the main entrance but we don't use it anymore." They are looking at a staircase. Panel 3: "It's hard to believe now, but this used to be the biggest cinema outisde of London." They walk. Panel 4: "Whoa, I never would've..." Behind them, there are obvious signs of disrepair.

Breakwater is not a gentle slice-of-life story, nor is it a harrowing tale of mental illness. Rather, much like many lived experiences, it’s something in between. Katriona Chapman’s soft graphite art deftly conveys the personalities and emotions of regular people facing a difficult decision, transforming the mundane backdrop of a dilapidated cinema into a stage for an understated, yet affecting, drama about coworkers with a troubled friendship. The questions raised by the slow and careful development of the story are relatable and thought-provoking, and I found myself moved by the characters and the dilemmas that confront them.

Breakwater

Katriona Chapman
Avery Hill Publishing
November 1, 2020

The cover of Breakwater: the foreground of the cover is a breaking wave against a rock pier, behind which is a boardwalk with buildings, including a movie theatre. Two people lean on the boardwalk's railing in front of the theatre. Soft clouds populate the blue sky, only slightly darker than the ocean. The words 'Breakwater' and 'Katriona Chapman' are written in cursive, like skywriting in clouds, in the sky.

It’s been twenty years since Chris graduated from college, but she still works at an aging cinema on the seafront of a coastal city in England. She gets along well with her coworkers and is mostly content to live a quiet and unassuming life. This changes when a young man named Dan joins the staff. Dan has just moved to town after breaking up with an abusive boyfriend, but he’s friendly and outgoing.

Chris and Dan begin spending time together outside of work and form a close connection. As their friendship deepens, Chris begins to understand that Dan may be suffering from an untreated mental illness. His reluctance to talk about his family takes on a sinister tone, especially after Dan’s brother gets in touch with Chris to warn her that Dan owes him a substantial amount of money. Dan’s mental health takes a turn for the worse after he gets back together with his ex-boyfriend, who continues to be emotionally and physically abusive.

At the climax of the story, Chris is forced to make a tough decision about how to respond to Dan’s breakdown. In light of the stark fact of Dan’s mental illness, she also needs to reevaluate whether this friendship is something she will be able to accommodate, especially since she’s considering returning to school. It’s a difficult situation, and there’s no right answer. Just as in real life, the ending of Breakwater isn’t going to make everyone happy.

Chris and Dan are supported by a small yet distinctive cast of characters. Of particular note is a teenage member of the cinema staff named Craig who has dropped out of school and is considering joining the military. Craig doesn’t have an adult sensibility, and he often serves as comic relief. However, the story doesn’t minimize Craig’s occasional cluelessness about the adult world. Instead, it treats his decisions concerning school and work with sympathy and respect, just as it treats Chris’s ambivalence regarding the pressure to “do something with her life” as perfectly reasonable.

Breakwater is a beautifully drawn and masterfully written graphic novel about adult problems that reads like a quiet conversation with a friend. Chapman’s expressively rendered monochromatic graphite artwork deftly conveys the nuance of the characters’ emotions, from Dan’s delighted amazement at the shabby splendor of an abandoned screening room to Chris’s guarded concern when meeting Dan’s parents. As a result of the story’s honesty, the reader is able to sympathize with the complications surrounding how the characters deal with mental illness and economic precarity. Breakwater doesn’t condone or excuse troubling behavior, and it doesn’t portray difference as a magical rainbow of diversity. Dan’s sexuality and Chris’s working-class background don’t define them as characters, but these aspects of their identities have concrete effects on their lives, relationships, and mental health. I sincerely appreciate Breakwater’s openness and sensitivity, and the experience of following Chris’s story helped me reflect on my own concerns as an adult making my way through the challenges of the past year.

Kathryn Hemmann

Kathryn Hemmann

Kathryn is a Lecturer of East Asian Studies at University of Pennsylvania. They live at the center of a maze of bookshelves in Philadelphia.

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