Chip Zdarsky, Public Domain, vol,. 1 -- Past Mistakes

It’s not what I expected, Chip Zdarsky’s Public Domain: Volume One, but I don’t read enough graphica for my expectations to be at all trustworthy. Reviewers have generally been enthusiastic about this graphic novel, but readers (if one judges from Reddit) have been more equivocal. Who to trust?

Superficially, Public Domain is about the long after-effects of cartoonist / artist Syd Dallas’ career drawing the comics for the world’s most popular character, Domain, now at the centre of multiple movies. (They’re from Singular Comics, so naturally the movies take place in the SCU, the current one being “the mid-point movie in Phase Five of the SCU”: if Marvel’s paying attention.) Syd made a decent living, and is now living a quiet life in a moderately comfortable retirement. His co-creator Jerry, though, who put the words to Syd’s art, is milking it for all it’s worth, and there’s a massive corporate machine printing and firehosing money at everyone other than Syd, including idiot actors.

Syd, his wife Candy, and their sons, Miles and Dave, have competing views about what to do about this situation. Syd thinks he made a good living, provided for his family through a long career; Candy thinks he may have wasted a big chunk of his life, sacrificing time and connection with his loved ones in exchange for decent income from only a minimal share of Domain-generated wealth; Dave thinks it’s kind of great that his father made so many people happy; and Miles thinks his father was defrauded, exploited, and victimized.

This novel’s about comics, absolutely, and about the machinations that large media corporations have gone through (and continue to go through) in order to seize control and money from the creators of comics. It’s a bit inside-baseball, so to speak, but that’s fine. Hollywood awards shows love movies about movies; reviewers of graphic novels about comics love graphic novels about comics.

But you know what? Really, Public Domain is about family, and that’s the piece I didn’t expect. For all the focus on comics here, and in writeups about the book, comics aren’t genuinely at the heart of this book, even though they’re everywhere throughout it.

For a while, I felt underwhelmed by Public Domain, but now I think that Francesco Cacciatore has it right, over at Screen Rant: “Zdarsky is an eclectic artist who can blend a variety of styles, from cartoons to realistic illustrations, and goes for a minimalist and delicate approach that contrasts with classic comic bombast.” It’s an unbalanced approach that I wasn’t ready for, and it took reading Cacciatore (and the even better analysis by Tim Rooney at Comics Beat) before I could figure out what was keeping me from seeing ways into this book.

And it took me a few reads, too, before I felt like I understood properly the relations between the two sons, Miles and Dave1, and the relationship between Syd and Candy. The scene where Dave gets fired from the tattoo parlour might be the key to his character, for giving people the tattooes they should have, not the ones they request; Miles is more complicated than he seems, too, but he’s a struggling writer (once nominated for “Best Listicle” award, according to Dave), so we’re conditioned to expect that. The arc that Miles and Dave follow, from screwup sons amidst the flotsam of Syd’s past, to something like partners in Syd’s present and future: classic, in that it’s unexpected but at the same time exactly right for this story.

My one gripe is that I really, really wish there wasn’t a deus ex machina tech bro, but on the other hand, tech is machina, and I shouldn’t think that all tech bros are bad news. (Or should I, YCombinator?)

Anyway: I approached this as a graphic novel, but it wasn’t until I left aside the “graphic” part that I started to feel my way into Public Domain. I didn’t love it, but that’s not a necessary precondition for me to see this book as a small-scale triumph, accomplishing just what I think it sets out to do.

I’m not sure who Public Domain is for, exactly, but it’s a good read regardless.


Cacciatore refers to the sons as Miles and Davis, and I SO WISH THAT WERE TRUE, but no, his name’s David. A missed opportunity.


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