Don’t let the sheer physical size of writer Viken Berberian and artist Yann Kebbi’s The Structure Is Rotten, Comrade intimidate you — much. Yeah, it’s a hefty hardcover tome that Fantagraphics has published here, clocking in at 320 pages (I assume its original French-language edition is roughly the same, give or take a title page or two), but it reads reasonably quickly. Much of the real work comes later, when one mentally “unpacks” everything that’s been absorbed at breakneck speed.
That’s because this is a conceptually dense book in the extreme — and yes, I most assuredly do mean that as a compliment. But perhaps I’m pre-disposed toward appreciating it given what’s been happening not in the Armenian capital city of Yerevan, where this story takes place, but in my own hometown of Minneapolis.
Like too many municipalities to mention — maybe even yours — we’ve been inundated here in recent years with a veritable onslaught of “luxury” condos and apartments, most of which seem to be sitting relatively empty while affordable housing options, historical landmarks, beloved neighborhood businesses, and buildings suffused with character have been ground under their malevolent heel. “Progress,” my ass — gentrification saps the soul out of any city and has a nasty habit of creeping in, almost unnoticed, until it’s too fucking late to stop it.
A popular (particularly with his young female students) professor of architecture named Frunz is one of the people looking to usher in a new building boom in Yerevan along with his father, a man both hailed and derided as “Mr. Cement,” but Armenians apparently aren’t as complacent as we are over here, and these grand schemes aren’t just met with resistance — they kick off a veritable political revolution.
Berberian’s scripting is smart, assured, adroit, and often quite funny, but it’s Kebbi’s bold, kaleidoscopic, vivid art that’s the real star of the show here, every page bursting at the seams with inventive compositions, expressionistic figures and faces, brisk movements and action, and vibrant color. It’s a visual tour de force that grabs hold of its multi-facted subject matter and rides it for all its worth, direct from the optic nerve to the cerebral cortex.
And as for that subject matter — Berberian tackles a hell of a lot, thematically, with an economy of words, his finger right on the combustible intersection of architecture, commerce, social and economic inequality, historical preservation, and local and national character. The places we inhabit are defined by us, sure — but they define us, as well, and as such are worth defending from the predatory forces of hyper-capitalism.
Sure, there’s a sense that this book is probably preaching to the choir — no one who isn’t intimately interested in these subjects is likely to lay out 35 bucks for it in the first place — but that doesn’t preclude the work from being a smart and inventive one. A deliriously well-executed one. Hell, a vital one.
And that’s probably the key word I should emphasize above all others here. With The Structure Is Rotten, Comrade, Berberian and Kebbi have crafted a volume brimming over with smarts, heart, creativity, and vitality. This book may concern itself with preserving the past by any means necessary, but it’s very much rooted in, and reflects, all the immediacy and urgency of the now, directed in service of a better, more equitable, more rich and fulfilling future.
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