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Manuele Fior’s 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes twenty estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heart breaks and the one-second delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while five thousand kilometers apart.

Fior’s art is cartoonish in its simplistic shapes—noses are triangles, ears half-circles—and his colors can be expressionistically lavish, and yet the overall effect seems oddly naturalistic. Fiore’s storytelling is especially effective in its nuanced use of the comics form. His white gutters are atypically wide, creating a discursive distance that draws attention to the thematic distances at the heart of the novel.

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Jessica Abel and Matt Madden warn graphic novelists in their textbook Drawing Words & Writing Pictures: “Don’t go too wide with gutters, because the panels will tend to visually fall apart from one another and not look like a unified page” (80). Fior’s pages are not as extreme as Abel and Madden’s “too wide” example, but his gutters do subtly suggest the lack of unity between his characters and the falling apart of their relationships.

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That distancing effect is heightened where his unframed panels merge with the white of the page background, especially along speech bubbles, which Fior divides with sharp black lines within panels but leaves open to the gutters along outer edges. As a result the interior of talk balloons share the white of the background page. Though unframed, the panel edges are also sharp, cutting off image content with a precision that contrasts Fior’s watercolors and often thick gestural lines. Drawn content never breaks frame. The effect is paradoxical: a spaciousness that rigidly encloses. Again, the formal style mirrors the novel’s emotional content.

The rigidity is apparent in the layout scheme too. Almost all pages are regular 3-rows, most fluctuating between two and three equally sized panels, punctuated by the occasional full-width panel or, more rarely, an off-centered row as if two panels of an implied three have been combined. The five full-page panels are notable exceptions, as are four other variations, but the overall effect is a rectangular consistency as unbroken as the paradoxically frameless panels.

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. And Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story. The novel opens with a full-page panel of Lucia’s balconied apartment building, followed by a page of three full-width panels as the perspective tightens around interior figures visible through windows as they speak. The third page then offers a close-up an unidentified face—Piero’s—as he bends the slats of his window blinds and stares grinning at the reader. The contrast between the bright yellows and the sudden gray blue communicate the 180-degree change in location, and the white slats partially merge with the gutters—as if Piero is bending them too. Although the tight frame suggests he is alone, the final panel of page four reveals Nicola for the first time as the two vie for the same view.

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The conflict is defining of their friendship, as is Fior’s pleasantly misleading use of framing. Nicola did not newly arrive on the scene, but was always present yet narratively unacknowledged.

The second chapter leaps unexpectedly in both time and location, as Lucia, now a graduate student, arrives in Norway. Fior waits seventeen pages to reveal that she and Piero—who last seen had only barely managed to gasp a love-struck hello to her when they passed each other for the first time—have been dating and now, as Lucia writes a letter to him, are breaking up: “I don’t love you anymore. There, I’ve said it. I realize it’s easier from far away.” Their relationship, the novel’s romantic core, occurs entirely in the gutter between pages.

Chapter three opens with three pages of Egyptian scene-setting before finally revealing Piero, who soon is arguing with an estranged and unnamed girlfriend by phone before plunging into sickness-induced erotic dreams of Lucia.

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A chapter later we leap to Norway again with the now pregnant and unhappily married Lucia as she reads about Peiro’s archeology work in the newspaper and recalls making love with him for the first time to a song on the radio. She soon decides to leave her husband and a chapter later makes the titular phone call to Piero, who has just learned that his own wife is pregnant too. Though their conversation seems warm, Fiore creates an estranging effect for readers by including only Piero’s half of the dialogue, leaving Lucia’s words ambiguously implied.

Concluding the novel’s building rain motif with four pages of gray downpour, Fior offers a final eight-year leap forward as the ex-lovers finally meet in person again.

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Though Piero is returning to Egypt with his family in a week and Lucia we learn later is living with Nicola, the two attempt to have drunken sex in a restaurant bathroom before parting again—now it seems definitively. But Fior, having established the unbreakable and unforgiving nature of time, then draws the novel’s first and only flashback: a five-page scene of the jealous Nicola searching unsuccessfully for his best friend as Piero hides in Lucia’s apartment and Lucia lies to Nicola, culminating in the sex scene Lucia described almost sixty pages earlier. Only Fior does not draw the scene. He concludes the novel just moments earlier as Lucia lies invitingly on her bed and Piero grins—a fitting ending to a novel that so often evokes by avoiding its most central content.

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[The original version of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

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