It’s hard to say what Mannie Murphy’s debut graphic novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is about without listing all of the contents, but I’ll try. I’ll admit to being disappointed by the publisher’s summary.
Murphy begins with their adolescent memory of being at a slumber party and hearing the news of River Phoenix’s death. The story takes a deep dive into Phoenix’s life story, film highlights, and his work on My Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant’s seminal film about queer underground culture in Portland. It then ricochets around Portland-adjacent stories of violent white settlers, redlining, and racial strife through the centuries. The explosive trial of neo-Nazi skinhead Kenneth “Ken Death” Mieske for the murder of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw in 1988 takes up a considerable length of the book. A muse of Gus Van Sant, he is the narrative’s path into the rise of white supremacy and its stranglehold on Portland. The strategic infiltration of the police force and the subsequent violence is a case study for the current national crisis. Murphy then circles back closer to home and their experiences at a Portland high school that valued individuality and questioning authority.
The writing is a thoroughly compelling blend of confession and heavily researched true crime, all told in a stream of consciousness style. The text is neat handwritten cursive filling up half of each page, with varied spacing as needed. In an interview with the Center of Cartoon Studies, Murphy said that the cursive script is meant to function in part as a barrier the reader must be willing to scale, and an emblem of the diary format, as well as funneling access to their 35-55 year-old intended demographic. The ability to read cursive also squares with the requisite generational knowledge to remember Geraldo Rivera, part of a key moment related in the book when skinheads literally broke onto the mainstream American TV scene. Honestly, I hope more people are learning cursive than the alarmist news media reports, because I want Murphy’s progression of thoughts to bloom in younger minds as well. After reading it twice, I can tell the book has only begun growing in my own mind.
The art and visual format are challenging but rewarding. There are no panels or speech bubbles; one could perhaps make an argument for it as a picture book or illustrated memoir rather than a graphic novel. School newsprint with handwriting guide red and blue lines buckles under the weight of the ink washes Murphy uses for half-page illustrations. Luminous eyes and thickly-lined faces evoke moments from movies, magazine spreads and photojournalism. I couldn’t always tell from the picture alone which celebrities were depicted, but Murphy captures the cool vulnerability of River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in particular. All of the people have a ghostly aspect that haunts the pages. The landscapes recall postcards. The physicality of the paper and its wrinkles, the visible bleed from the back of the splash pages announcing the chapters, all reinforce the idea of the book as a personal artifact.
The content and themes are adult, without any lurid or graphic language or illustrations. Older teens who are into true crime and cultural introspection may enjoy it. While a connection to the 80s and 90s can add to the reader’s understanding, it’s not necessary. I struggle to come up with readalikes, it makes me think of Peter Kuper and Art Spiegelman in their attempts to gather accessible stories around monumental concepts. Despite the journal approach to the writing, there are few direct stories of Murphy’s life; they traffic more in public tragedies. And yet, I’m also reminded of Julie Doucet’s New York Diary.
I Never Promised You A Rose Garden is a singular experience and I hope most libraries with adult graphic collections will give their communities a chance to read it.
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
By Mannie Murphy
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation: Queer