In amongst the joy and blissful contentment (yes, I am genuinely that happy) of my long relationship to the most wonderful man in the world, there is a niggling, barely-acknowledged thought – what if I ever lost him?
It’s not something I actively entertain, of course, preferring to think of us as always, inviolably alive and together but what if the unthinkable happened? What would it feel like? How would it cope? How many times would I journey to madness and back again in my grief?
It’s a deeply unsettling thought which is why I do my best to never let it find its way into my conscious thought (save, obviously enough, for creative purposes it seems), but it forms the central part of the narrative of this immensely-moving graphic novel from writer-comedian Mark Watson (Hotel Alpha) and illustrator-graphic novelist Oliver Harud who together tell the kind of tale none of us actually want to have transpire in our lives.
Yet for all that, there is something powerful about reading this heartbreakingly-beautiful story of a couple, Dan and Sam, who run a successful London restaurant (“best-kept secret”) with playful sass, personality and attentive flair, who love each other passionately and completely and whose employees, head chef Joey and sous-chef Anna and regular customer food critic Roland Greaves are family, and who, on one tragic night, lose each other in a terrible accident.
Dan is, as you would imagine, bereft without Sam, the depth of his grief and loss illustrated in painfully evocative authenticity by Watson’s deeply-felt prose and Harud’s elegantly-wrought artwork, the black-and-white nature of the storytelling there for a purpose, later revealed, giving you an immersively terrible sense of what a lonely world true-soul scarring grief is.
Sam’s restaurant family do their best to be there for him but no one can enter the place he occupies, and the addition of new staff member Paloma only serves to amplify, with dramatic tension, the great hole left by Sam.
It looks like nothing will ever bring Dan back from the brink but then something utterly-magical happens – on the anniversary of his wife’s death, he walks to the cemetery where he spends most of his time talking to his wife at her graveside and finds her not dead but quite, gloriously, colourfully alive, along with everyone else there.
But this is not Glitch or In the Flesh, and these are not zombies, come corporeally to life with colour, music and dancing; for one precious night Sam, and others, are back, very much alive and in the here-and-now, unable to say where they are on the other 364 days of the year (death is a foggy blackhole of memory it seems) but able to be held, to hold back, to kiss and talk and have sex and … be alive again.
It’s all impossibly wonderful and Dan, once the shock wears off, is in raptures but how is this even possible?
Thankfully that is, like what happens after death, not explained at all, which works in the context of a story where what takes place is far important than the why.
In fact, it’s far more preferable to simple let this gently escapist piece of magical realism unencumbered by burdensome and possible twee exposition and Watson wisely lets the story do its thing, concentrating on what it feels like for Dan to have Sam again, lose her again at the end of the night and then wait a year to see her all over again?
That one night is a wonder and a delight yes, but is is any way to live a life? Is it wise to hang your life on the hook of one night a year, however fantastic it might be, or should you move on? Can you spend your entire life in a bubble of death and then not-death for 12 short hours?
That is the dilemma that fills Dan with much anguish and self-introspection when he’s not with the temporarily-animated Sam and which fills Dan and Sam, which has wry moments of humour sprinkled through its thoughtful and insightfully-bleak pages, with the sort of deep anguish that anyone who loses the love of their life, or anyone close to them really, would struggle with.
You can’t help but be profoundly affected by the story which doesn’t pretend that everything eventually bounces back like magic; in fact, Dan, though he does eventually find someone, does not simply “move on”, as some urge him to do, unable, or unwilling, to lose Sam all over again if he does get closer to the potential new woman in his life (and you understand how much is at stake because Watson takes the time, without slowing the story down on iota, to show us how perfect Dan and Sam were, and are, for each other).
Yet for all the existential bleakness, there is a hopefulness and joy to the story, moments that increase as the story goes on, that remind you of life’s powerful pull, and how it demands to be lived in each and every moment, not simply an isolated event here and there.
That’s not enough for anyone and as Dan reaches the fifth anniversary of Sam’s death and struggles with who he was and what his life was with what it is now, the choice becomes stark and unenviable – leave the past and Sam behind or stay living in some sort of strange, colour-filled, night-long limbo?
You might think it’s an easy decision but of course it’s not, and Dan and Sam illustrates, quite literally as it turns out with an exquisitely-well judged use of colour and black-and-white panelling, how agonisingly difficult losing someone is, and we all eventually move on in some shape or form, struggling as we do so, to balance the past and the future, and to find a way to live in a loss-cratered present.
Dan and Sam is quite simply one of the most stories I have ever read in any form; elegantly and powerfully told, with humour threading its way carefully but happily through the sadness, loss and enervation of grief, it’s one of the most powerful and real accounts of love I’ve encountered which uses a magically-real premise to explore what it is like to love and loss and love again and how you navigate, if you can, the always imprecise and messy parts in-between.