King of King Court by Travis Dandro

Review by Juhyun Tony Bae

Drawn and Quarterly, Raincoast Books, August 2019

464 pages, paperback, $34.95 CAD, 978-1-770-46359-2

Ages 15+, Grades 10-12

New Adult, Graphic Novel, Non-Fiction

“I think Dad Dave is sick.”
“Dave’s sick? What’s wrong with him?”
“I dunno, he had to give himself a shot.”
“Y’know, with a needle. Like at the doctor’s.”
“You saw him do this?”
“Yup, in the little room by the kitchen, what’s it called?”
“The pantry.”
“Ya, he got kinda mad when I went in and yelled at me. He said, I TOLD YOU TO STAY IN THE OTHER ROOM!”

Some stories possess the ability to connect us to emotions that can be almost impossible to express, and Travis Dandro’s debut graphic novel, King of King Court, is one of those stories. Poetic in structure, with sparse use of words, this personal memoir is about Dandro’s experiences growing up in multiple dysfunctional households while being shadowed by an abusive, drug-addicted father.

The story follows Travis from a very young age to the end of high school, masterfully portraying how his perception of Dave, his birth father, changes as he grows older. One of the beautiful things Dandro does to illustrate this changing perspective is to make the early fragments more disjointed, naive, and imaginative (to portray a child’s viewpoint), while the later narrative becomes more linear, focused, and a little bitter. The story feels intimate not only because of the disclosed subject matter, but by the way it’s told; it feels as if the author is telling this story in real-time, directly to the readers from memory, flowing from one thought to another. There are no chapters, no hard stops. At first, some of the transitions felt jarring, but once I got used to the style about a fifth of the way in, I found the narrative almost hypnotizing in the way it guides the reader through the pages. In fact, I finished the book without putting it down once.

The art appears simplistic, like it’s a series of doodles in a sketchbook, but careful thought was put into every frame, effectively communicating not only the events, but also themes and emotions. The rough and seemingly unrefined work also serves to enhance the uncertainty and insecurity Travis faces in his day-to-day life. 

Although under vastly different circumstances, I grew up with an abusive father as well, and by the end of the book, I felt a solemn connection to Travis. The ending expressed an emotion that I’ve felt when dealing with my own father, and it broke my heart. It’s not a feeling of liberation from escaping the abuse, nor anger—it’s the feeling of nostalgia, guilt, melancholy, that even after the years of pain, all you can think about are the few great moments you’ve had together, and that being freed may have cost your hope of ever seeing him change.

It’s hard to decide which age group this book should belong to. The experiences are definitely of a child/teenager, but there are no themes of discovering oneself, adventure, or coming of age that we are used to seeing in YA novels. I’ve placed it under new adult because of its grim and honest depiction of substance abuse, domestic violence, and trauma, but I would also recommend it to the more mature YA readers.   

Regardless of the age you are when you read it, you will agree that King of King Court is a brave memoir that is well deserving of your attention.

Juhyun Tony Bae is a Korean-Canadian writer currently studying at UBC. He’s been working on a dystopian YA novel that he says will be completed between the next one to fifty years. His work has been published in Grain, FreeFall, and Wax Poetry and Art. You can follow him on twitter @jTonyBae.

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