Admittedly the premise is quite ridiculous. In the seventies, humanity is shocked to find that chickens have not only begun to talk, but also inexplicably evolved to a level of sentient intelligence similar to that of a human. Despite that, the universal themes of prejudice, fear, anger and collective suffering makes Alanguilan’s novel resonate. We see the world through the eyes of two different generations of the Gallo family, Jake, the son angry at the discrimination that he faces in the world (that in turn causes him to discriminate against humans), and his late father, Elmer, who lived through the hard times. As Jake struggles with the memoir that his father has left him, he comes to understand the suffering and sacrifice of his parent’s generation, and re-evaluate how he feels about humans due to his father’s relationship with a farmer called Ben.
On the day that Elmer gained a higher form of consciousness he was in the poultry, surrounded by people murdering chickens. The chicken who would become his wife, Jake’s mother, was herself hung upside on a line where they cut chickens heads off. In Alanguilan’s novel that poultry farms become death camps, their own Dachau or Auschwitz. Farmer Ben, working there at time, finds the pair and Elmer’s brother Joseph, and sneaks them out to safety, hiding them in his house while in the outside world things become violent. Sheltering them, feeding them, and on one occasion almost dying when defending the chickens from a mob who wants to cull them due to a bird flu pandemic, Ben forms a bond with Elmer that lasts his entire life. Jake, initially angry at Ben, comes to learn not only that his family owes him a great debt, but that Ben has never asked for anything in return from them for all that he has done for them. When at the end of the story Jake’s novel on his father’s life is released, Ben is flattered that Jake wrote about him, but is shy and unassuming, and doesn’t care for the attention.
Alanguilan’s art is very impressive, recalling the anthropomorphic style of European comics, and his attention to detail when it comes to fowl is very impressive. The power of his art adds to the strength of his narrative; one particular page that sticks in the mind is one where Jake looks out of his window to see the younger version of himself and his father out there as they had been when he was a youth, and upon looking again, seeing that there is nothing there. Alanguilan, a long time inker of mainstream American comics, displays not only a talent for drawing, but for all the elements of storytelling in sequential art that make Elmer stronger as a graphic novel than it would in any other form.
Elmer‘s real power is that despite the incredulousness of the premise, it revolves around subjects that we can all relate to. The relationship between a father and his angry wayward son, the suffering of an entire oppressed group, the fight for equality, and senseless violence, mob mentality, and ultimately unforgivably acts of genocide. Poignant and powerful, Elmer says just as much about as us as human beings than it does about chickens.
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