BookMark: "King Of King Court" By Travis Dandro
To what extent are we destined to become trapped in the cycles sparked by our parents’ shortcomings? This is one of the central questions explored in “King of King Court,” a graphic memoir by Travis Dandro and winner of the 2020 Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize. On its surface, “King of King Court” is a coming-of-age story showcasing the complex ways that drug abuse and domestic violence challenge a child’s development and complicate family dynamics. However, a deeper dive into the book also reveals a celebration of childhood mischief along with a “yes, and…” approach to its adult characters, who are both flawed and caring.
“King of King Court” begins with an elementary-school-aged Dandro learning that a family friend, Dave, is actually his biological father. As Dandro’s relationship with “Dad Dave” grows, so, too, does Dave’s drug habit. He begins weaving into and out of patterns of intoxication and sobriety and violence and reconciliation. Dad Dave also shifts from father to antagonist. This is a pattern that continues into the second half of the book, which features a high-school-aged Dandro trying to imagine his future from within Dave’s dark shadow. But, Dandro doesn’t just vilify his father. He instead uses the reflective gaze of memoir to reveal the deep trauma that drives Dave’s drug abuse and violent tendencies.
It’s this nuanced portrayal of the adult characters that’s one of my favorite parts about the book. For example, Dandro’s grandma is profane and flatulent, but there’s a warmth and fondness between them, and he feels safe at her house. And, although Dandro’s uncle struggles with alcoholism, he’s harmless and his house is a refuge from Dave. All of the adults are flawed, but their vices don’t always make them dangerous. Dandro does have a network of support, perhaps the most important part of which are the teachers who encourage his artistic talent.
Ultimately, for Dandro, art is his way out. It’s rather moving, then, that “King of King Court” is his first graphic novel. Not only does it pay homage to art as a coping mechanism, but his images are an intricate part of his storytelling as he punctuates scenes of domestic narrative with visual exposition. Dandro zooms out to show detailed views of the landscapes surrounding the characters. He zooms in to show ants crawling on an Oreo that’s fallen into the dirt. It’s no wonder that my fellow Lynd Ward Prize jurors said of the book, “Dandro’s deft intermingling of word and image exemplifies what a graphic novel can do by conveying a deeply personal story that could not be told as effectively in any other form.”
In his graphic memoir, “King of King Court,” Travis Dandro skillfully merges text, image, and the reflective gaze of his adult understanding to walk his younger self through a tumultuous story. It’s an impressive debut and and a worthy selection for the 2020 Lynd Ward Prize.
Reviewer Jason Griffith is an assistant professor of education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Penn State.
Travis Dandro is the winner of the 2020 Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize. Due to Covid-19, there will be a video of Dandro accepting the award. Watch for the video's release via a press release from Penn State News and the Pennsylvania Center for the Book's website and Facebook page.