Why I Killed Peter
By Alfred and Olivier Ka
NBM doesn’t offer much to go on. There’s the title of course—loaded but cryptic—suitable perhaps for a B movie thriller or a murder mystery. On the cover is a simple silhouette of a shadowy figure—Peter perhaps? The other side of the book offers only a quick pull quote from the text: “Peter is a liberal priest. He’s cool. He’s funny. He’s not a priest, he’s like a regular guy. It’s like I have a new uncle. A great one, who laughs, who sings, who tickles.” The back flap, meanwhile, offers a less than modest note from publisher NBM, that reads, in part, “Novels in the true sense [are] about exploring our lives, our feelings, our experiences…Here are the most intelligent comics the world has to offer.”
It’s a sad sign of the world’s current state, perhaps, that from these dissonant elements, we can glean some sense of the subject matter contained herein—the self-serious copy, a shadowy figure, a tickling priest. Pulling the pieces together, it becomes pretty clear why the company opted to forgo a straight-forward summary for the back of the book. After all, this is not sort of subject matter that moves comics in the direct market world. For that matter, Why I Killed Peter isn’t the kind of book that tends to draw a lot of sales from casual comic shop browsing. Rather, it’s the manner of book whose success traditionally hinges on industry buzz and critical acclaim. Fortunately for NBM, it’s likely to garner both.
Why I Killed Peter is a slow book—not so much plodding as deliberately paced. Author Olivier Ka knows exactly where he intends to go, but for obvious reasons seems in no major rush to get there. Along the way he spins a memoir, and while abuse is, in a sense, both the impetus and core of the book, it’s certainly not the soul focus, but rather one of many key moments that, for better and worse made the author who he is today.
Each chapter of the book is devoted to a snapshot of a year in the author’s life, all carrying the title “I Killed Peter Because I Was _____ Years Old.” His seventh year, the book’s first chapter, offers a brief picture of fairly standard childhood night time fears—images of hell instilled by the religious utterances of grandmother, a casual but stern piece of early sexual fear as she warns the child that little boys who play with themselves are destined for hellfire.
Ages eight, nine, and ten paint a much sunnier childhood picture, a life exploring the countryside with his hippy parents, and while here too Ka makes passing mentions of childhood sexual exploration, the moments take on a similarly carefree tone, such as when, at age eight, the boy watches his parents’ beautiful friend Christine plunge fully naked into a lake. At nine we’re introduced to Peter, a flannel-wearing priest. He’s big and bearded and full of smiles, and Ka notes, is the polar opposite the stuff priest who preaches hellfire at his grandparents’ congregation. Peter is well-loved by all. He plays guitar in services and takes the children on overnight camping trips.
Ka, a veteran of kid’s books, has a flair for childlike voices, narrating the story of his young self with short, clipped sentences that capture a sense of wonder and perpetual hyperbole. The accompanying art suits the language well. Alred’s pen is equally playful, a sketchy cartoony style that seemingly owes much to fellow countrymen, Dupuy and Berbérian.
At 12, Ka confronts the inevitable. A sunny, pleasant day at the seemingly suitably named “Happy River” gives way to a brief two-panel piece of foreshadowing—Peter is a cat, the adolescent author a mouse. It’s a piece of imagery that recalls both the most classic of childhood cartooning and Art Spiegelman’s watershed piece of grownup sequential art, Maus, but Alfred doesn’t dwell on it for long. Soon, however, night comes, and the art once again takes an abrupt turn—panels turn nearly black, with splotches of ink mudding up the customarily clearn lines. The encounter lasts a few pages. It’s not graphic in the least—we see silhouettes of faces and hands and nothing more, but it’s somehow horrific, nonetheless.
And then, all of the sudden, it’s morning.
Ka, it seems, is not one to dwell. At 12, he tries to be a grownup, something that apparently involves some degree and forgetting and generally moving on. The author spends the next several years living his life—leaving school, falling in love, working, having a child. The mere existence of this book, however, is evidence of Ka’s need for catharsis. And soon the story takes a turn for the meta as the author begins pouring it out on paper. “It’s high time to write out this story in its entirety, from the beginning,” writes Ka. “There’s no other way to shed it. I have a chance to get rid of it all through writing. It’s just as effective as psychoanalysis and saves me tongs of money. So I immerse myself completely in my memoirs.”
It’s a shedding that isn’t fully complete until Ka confronts his issues in an even more literal sense, by returning to scene where his innocence was so abruptly robbed from him. With his artist, Alred, behind the wheel, Ka takes a final trip to Happy River. Alfred, for his part, further blurs the lines between the real and the remembered by cleverly integrated photos from the event into the text.
It’s a powerful end for both the book and, on a far more personal level, a chapter of Ka’s life that he had long struggled to close. Of course the author knows as well as anyone that there’s really no such thing as an easy ending for a story like this—if, in fact, there can ever really be an ending at all.
But really there’s nothing easy about Why I Killed Peter. It’s a hard book to read, and it was no doubt a difficult one to write. In the hands of Ka and Alfred, however, it never feels preachy or heavy-handed. It’s a strong and important book, and above all, yet another testament to the power of this medium.