There’s something about North America that has inspired multiple stabs at utopianism, sometimes stating upfront that is the goal, other times being unaware that any given community’s goals are informed by some vision of utopia, though the members may not express it directly as such. And the quest for utopian settlement has found representation in terms of religion and politics and, sometimes, non-secular social structures and intellectual movements.
Maybe it’s the unfettered wilderness that the land offered to people escaping the burdens of so-called civilization that almost always, regardless of what European country you lived in, demanded one standard out of its citizens with very little wiggle room. North America promised the space — physical and psychological — where if you did not adhere to the wider norms, you could find an isolated corner to invest in your own version, apart from the majority.
Crucial to some of these settlements — or at least something that they were naturally predisposed to — was caution about the other, the outsider. Any given closed utopian society was susceptible to the fear of infiltration.
Fraternity, which is written by Juan Diaz Canales, with art by Jose-Luis Munuera and translations by Jeremy Melloul, takes that idea and puts it into physical form. Inspired by the settlement of New Harmony, Indiana, an entire town that was bought in 1825 by Welsh industrialist and utopian philosopher Robert Owen after its Lutheran separatist builders, known as the Harmony Society, decided to move away. Thus it was a Utopian settlement twice. Owen’s lasted about two years, after an earnest effort to make its socialism work on the pillars of science and education.
The utopian settlement of Fraternity has been fashioned in similar ways, but Canales points out a fact about many of the utopian efforts of history in the portrayal of his own fictional one — it’s largely the domain of white men. In Fraternity, there is one woman, Fanny Zoetrope, who commands any authority at all. The community teacher, her forthrightness causes some prickliness with a number of the men in the settlement. The Civil War is underway and it’s become harder to survive. When several Black soldiers show up seeking shelter, the proclivity of white men to yell “every man for himself” and then bond together against anyone who isn’t a member of their self-defined group is on full display, with Fanny’s suggestions attacked and the desperate runaway soldiers shunted aside.
There’s also a young boy, Emile, a formerly feral child who has been brought into the community with the hopes of civilizing him — that is, taming him. There’s a constant frustration among community members at Emile’s inability to adhere to the limits that are set out for him. But in his wildness, Emile has bonded with something lurking in the surrounding woods, a creature that is going to fire the community’s fear and give them a scapegoat for their own self-destruction.
There are many ways in which Fraternity reminds me of the television show The Terror with its themes of a monster standing outside civilization, standing in attack and revealing the weakest aspects of the so-called civilized world, the restrictions that bind it to helplessness, the prejudices that create its social structure and make it less safe, the need to blame the messenger for its demise rather than itself.
In expressing how old these fears are, how ingrained the clinging to power is in our species, Canales evokes the story of the Minotaur and its assurance that there must be a hero to defeat the monster that threatens a society. By looking back at the archetype of the monster in relationship to a community, Canales is able to step back from making the appearance of the monster in Fraternity too limited by story concerns, and that’s a great move since what the monster represents is far more important than what the monster actually is.
Munuera creates an evocative and foreboding landscape for the inevitable doom to unfold, with an animator’s smoothness to the characters and action, but ever-increasing claustrophobia to the environs of the town of Fraternity. This, too, reminds me of The Terror in its television incarnation, where the landscape becomes a visual cue to the barrenness of their own ideals. Civilization might be intellectual armor, but that can’t help the rotting insides of humankind.