There is a crucial factor in human resiliency, I think, and that is the part of the process where a person seizes their own narrative and presents it to the world in some form. That presentation is the formalization of human durability, the part where we make it official that we got through it, not undamaged, but also not allowing the damage to completely overtake the desire to live our life. This is too often mistaken for a celebration of victimhood, but the fact remains that most humans experience some trauma at some point, and most who do require some work to parse out the experience and move on. Putting your story out there is a common way for people to heal, and to also offer insight for others who face similar traumas.
King of King Court, Travis Dandro’s memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional, sometimes dangerous, household in Leicester, Massachusetts, presents this idea of finding your voice as crucial to healing within its story. Quietly, though clearly, throughout his young life, the practice of drawing becomes something that Travis can give himself to, and if by the end of the book, you wonder whatever happened with that practice, and how it might have helped him in the long run, the answer is something you are holding in your hand.
But it’s not just about putting pictures on a page, it’s about developing a storytelling practice, and to do that you not only have to figure out how to create panels, but how to make the pictures mean something beyond the action that is being depicted — and sometimes depicting things that happen on the inside of a person, to read people, motivations. Anytime you see young Travis drawing, that’s what you see him doing — learning how to qualify his own experience by investigating the behavior of others.
The focus of Dandro’s memoir is his father, a violent, self-destructive drug-user who spends time in jail and is in-and-out of Dandro’s life with the awkward interaction of a divorced dad trying to connect, often through gifts. Dandro actually doesn’t know that his friend Dave is actually his father and that his mother’s husband, an alcoholic, is step-father, but following that revelation “Dad Dave” attempts to play more a role in Dandro’s life, adding a layer of unpredictability and confusion despite Dandro’s good-natured approach to the relationship.
But Dandro’s story is not just about the failure of one parent, but rather the systematic, across-the-board failure of the family structure to protect children. Dandro’s mother is trapped in a back-and-forth between her two husbands, forgiving them and adapting fantasies about their worth at varying times that doesn’t allow her to consider a third option very easily, and the kids are swept up in the self-destructive drama of the parents. Dandro finds some reprieve with his grandmother, but as is often the case, she can’t shield him completely.
The story is split between Dandro’s childhood and teenage years, the latter being a time when the aspects Dandro could brush off more easily because he was a kid catch up with him, causing him to take a definitive stance in the dysfunction. He does this, much to his credit — dealing with his parents’ issues has become unavoidable, largely due to his parents’ inability to deal with the issues themselves — and this is where Dandro’s story comes together, where he is allowed to not only celebrate his resilience in the situation, but also the ability he has developed to tell his story. This is where it all comes together.
But King of King Court, despite the subject matter, never becomes a jarring or gloomy straightforward drama since Dandro maintains a sense of humor throughout and tells his mostly through two points of view that offer a scattered and mysterious quality. The first half unfolds through the cognition of a little kid, where some parts of the situation register while others don’t, where life is a freeform ramble typically approached on good faith and curiosity. To the reader, Dandro’s life is a puzzle to be put together, though possibly with some missing pieces to it.
But Dandro also utilizes a lot of surreal imagery as the dream wanderings of the people involved seep out onto the comics page and overtake the drama, depicting their biggest fears and desires in context of the situations they find themselves in. If the family depicted seems claustrophobic, the expansive dream expressions, especially those directly linked to Dandro as a kid, seem not free, but desperate to be so. The uncertainty of his family life hasn’t necessary unleashed a desire for predictability, but rather a different form of variability that promises something better, happier. And when the dream sequences do express certainty, it’s a dark, dangerous one that feels inescapable.
Dandro does escape, though, Well, as much as any of us can. That’s what the book is showing us. But it’s also showing us the enormity of family dysfunction, which too often creates a permanent disturbance in our lives, challenging us to be resilient and move on, sometimes even taunting us to. King of King Court at least suggests that if this is something you have to live with, then one good tactic is to seize control of it through crafting your own narrative about it. Resilience takes work, and what Dandro has done is pretty great work.