The importance of a father figure in a young boy’s coming of age is well-known, but what happens when the father is absent—not by choice so much, but instead at war? It’s a question pondered in the troubling new graphic novel, “Refresh, Refresh,” a collaboration between Danica Novgorodoff, Benjamin Percy (whose acclaimed short story of the same title is the basis for this book) and James Ponsoldt. Three rural Oregon boys, whose fathers are reservists serving overseas, wage their own wars with each other, with authority, with anyone they can as they struggle with the absence and uncertainty hanging over their lives. Sometimes they feel the loss of both parents, as mothers work overtime to try and make enough money to hold it together. Meanwhile, their kids take on a nihlistic existence, playing soldier and brawling, without knowing what they’re fighting for or about: “He wanted to be ready. He wanted to hurt those who hurt him.” The book draws its title from this, the first email war, where soldiers’ families look not to the postal carrier but rather the computer, sometimes hitting the refresh button in desperate hope for word.
Novgorodoff renders the book in functional illustration with occasional flourishes of impressionism, but the strongest images come from the dialogue, such as the time when one of the boys talks to his father on the phone: “Ask your father if he needs more Handi Wipes,” his mother commands. “Everyone sends Handi Wipes,” the son snaps back. “He doesn’t need Handi Wipes. He needs body armor, OK?”
It’s a pervasive tragedy, especially when the word comes that a father is lost forever, a loss that you’d think would drive sons far away from the lives their fathers lived. But as the title of the book implies, there is a vicious cycle at work, as young men, some with college-bound destinies, some not, all seem to be drawn magnetically toward the same sad life they’ve watched unfold in front of them. (Brian Hieggelke)
By Danica Novgorodoff, Benjamin Percy and James Ponsoldt
First Second Books, 138 pages, $17.99