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‘Billy Love Nibbles:’ Graphic Novel Review

A good story that begs good conversation.

Billy Loves Nibbles is a piece that I sought to review, as I was intrigued and a little nervous about the idea behind it.  I’m always put on guard with stories that rely on the presence of someone of different mental abilities and am unsure of how to feel when story elements come into play.  In novels like Of Mice and Men or plays like Pillowman, I’m constantly asking: Is this a story that could be told in another way?  Is the character being celebrated or victimized?  These are the questions that I think are important when regarding a work that makes use of any person with any type of mental illness or “deficiency” in this country because of all of the negative stereotypes and associations that have dominated our understanding or lack thereof of the cognitive abilities of those that seem different to us.  I wanted to get this out of the way before we dive into the content, but more on this later.

I do very much enjoy this book.  Billy and his mother are very easy characters to identify with - folks who don’t have much to themselves in this world, living in a lower-class area where just making enough to take care of themselves becomes an all-consuming occupation - and it illustrates perfectly the plight of many people who scrape by every day that we’d rather not think about while getting our iPods fixed.  Creator Travis Bundy holds his world to a sense of honesty here and has a great grasp of how human a thing it is.  The main thrust of the story is a revenge fantasy, much like Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, where a member of the downtrodden is given the chance to right the systemic wrongs of the world he lives in.  Billy just wants to love and live, and when his beloved pet is hurt, all he asks is that someone make it right; this leads to more and more trouble for him and for those that bring that trouble.

The book has a great comic quality and is filled with a wonderful palette that keeps the story rooted in the fantasy that it is.  The violence is over the top and feels a lot like Killer Klowns from Outer Space in the campy, yet horrific, way that it’s portrayed.  The “hulk” moments convey power and brutality, and there’s no one that you end up feeling sorry for when they get theirs.  It is the perfect complement to the story and is great to look at.  This is the kind of violence that you can laugh at for its ridiculous, over-the-top nature, yet feel vindicated at the same time.

Now, on to what I began with: Is this story putting out an overall positive message on people with developmental issues?  I’m honestly torn on this point and think there is an argument to be made for either side.  First, this is in no way an attack on the creator of content of this book; I really had fun reading it and thoroughly enjoyed it in every way, but I feel like it’s the kind of work that should engender conversation on a topic that I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling awkward about.  The biggest clue of the satirical nature of this story is the clash of the broad stereotypical characters found within: a Black Street Dealer Thug; an Italian Mafioso in a pizza shop; and a polite, but heartless, Latin Drug Lord.  I add to this Billy himself who becomes the stereotype of the Physically Powerful Half-Wit with no concept of the world in which he lives, which is as much a hurtful stereotype as any of the others.  These broad and larger-than-life characters are typically the kind that trend towards the lowest common denominator and tend to skewer and demean the culture they claim to be representative of.  The fact that the “enemies” in this book are treated in such a way makes me believe that the intention is to call them out for what they are within the context of this world.  Yes, Billy’s simple-minded triumph over the almost caricatured villains makes for all the good feels, but we have to be aware that he is himself as broadly portrayed as every other character in this book.  There’s a belief that exists that mentally handicapped individuals can possess an above average strength, but that is a stereotype born from the idea that people with certain types of mental issues tend not to restrain themselves physically, and in some instances don’t understand that it takes a different amount of effort to swing a baseball bat versus opening a door.  This isn’t a function of personality, but rather a symptom of a specific type of mental condition. 

The hyper-violence is another myth that comes from a misunderstood place and is the basis of this story.  It’s always directed at those that earn it within the world of this story, but it’s as much a negative stereotype as the speech patterns of the villains.  This is stereotypes fighting stereotypes, and while it’s very entertaining and aimed at the vindication of the lower-class individual, it has to be recognized for what it is.

There are only two points of this graphic novel that strike me in a purely negative way.  The first is the introduction, which ends with:

“Even a ‘retard’ can figure that out.”

Now, this word gets used a LOT in this book; it’s a hateful slur and I feel like its use is intended to show us how hateful and awful a word it has become, much in the way that Django Unchained used it to highlight its power.  There are other terms used throughout that apply to the other characters that are as insidious and nasty (without using the BIG ugly ones, but ones that are still not appropriate in any way), but whereas this is used within the context of the story, this sentence is outside of that.  It’s not one character using it at another as a slur, it’s a writer using an inappropriate term in a thoughtless way that underscores why it’s so negative to begin with and how it got to be so casually used.  Quotations around a slur don’t negate the power of it or make it cute, they just highlight the ignorance of its effect on people.

The second direct issue I have is with the ending.  Yes, it is a feel good moment, but I feel it’s tainted by Billy’s mom’s final line:

“He’ll never know anything other than Billy love Nibbles…and that’s all he’ll ever need.”

This feels like a big smack in the face to me; it stems from a misconception that just because someone does not interact with the world in the same way that we do, that they don’t understand their actions or the larger world around them.  This is a very negative idea; folks with different mental abilities may not be able to process things in a way we find socially acceptable, but that by no means should imply that they don’t understand what’s going on around them.  It usually means that the person lacks the social or speech tools to effectively communicate their thoughts or feelings in a way that everyone else can understand.  It’s important to note that Dr. Stephen Hawking also has an impediment to communicating (He was obviously able to create a program to facilitate it.) and is considered one of the smartest people on the planet.  My hope is that people see this and it sparks conversation on this very topic, and people can use this work to understand more about a problem that most folks would rather ignore.

This is a good, fun comic and opens an opportunity to have a dialogue that doesn’t get discussed much in a mainstream way, leading to a much better understanding of everyone’s journey in this life.  I enjoy the story and the good intentions behind the satirical nature of its content.


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