Monday, November 01, 2021

A Review of Ballad for Sophie by Filipe Melo and Juan Cavia

by Jason D. DeHart

Ballad for Sophie, by Filipe Melo and Juan Cavia, Top Shelf Productions, ISBN 978-1-60309-498-6, $24.99, 

First, here are some excerpts press release to summarize the plot and creators - Top Shelf Productions (an imprint of IDW) will be releasing Ballad for Sophie, a new music-themed graphic novel by Portuguese musician Filipe Melo and artist Juan Cavia that is packed with all of the drama of a rock ‘n’ roll biopic and with more twists than a night at the opera.  Ballad for Sophie is a sweeping tale about what happens when a young journalist prompts a reclusive musical superstar to finally break his silence. Starring child prodigies, bitter old men, beautiful dancers, demonic managers, Nazi commandants, compassionate nuns and lifesaving animals, Ballad for Sophie is a stunning graphic symphony exploring a lifetime of ambition, betrayal, compassion anguish, long-buried secrets and flying pianos. 

FILIPE MELO is a Portuguese musician, award-winning film director, and author. With decades of experience in classical and jazz piano, he teaches music at ESML, a university in Lisbon. He has developed commercials, music videos, and award-winning short films such as I’ll See You in My  Dreams and Sleepwalk. His international writing career includes the Dark Horse Presents anthology, a career award from the Amadora  comics festival, and several projects with Juan Cavia. JUAN CAVIA has worked as an art director and illustrator since 2004, after studying illustration and painting with the Argentinean  artist Carlos Pedrazzini. His work includes graphic novels, advertisements, TV, music videos, theater and nine feature films, including  Juan José Campanella’s Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes. Listen to the beautiful Ballad for Sophie theme song on Spotify HERE.

 and now, the review -

Writer Felipe Melo and artist Juan Cavia collaborate to share a visually gripping story that spans time, exploring identity, relationships, and music through the kinds of work that only comics can do. The story begins frame from the view of a journalist, and invites the reader into the narrative, with wordless panels giving us a clear time and place, and the hint of some mysterious turn to come. 

Setting the foundation this way, along with the realistic style, are notable moves on the part of the artist and author, as the story travels back and forth across decades, and yet keeps the reader in tow through these twists in time. Another effective part of the storytelling is reader’s introduction to the maestro, the focal point in the story, first revealed as a figure turned away who closes out the inquisitive reporter, and then gradually warming to her questions. His reclusiveness forms one side of the mystery, and the motivations this interviewer create more questions for the reader.

Drawing on what can be communicated in the comics format, Melo and Cavia convey ideas and emotions through expressions, movements, and gestures, sometimes with words contained in panels, and sometimes not – and the hook of the story is set as we wonder about the maestro’s silence. Through the narrator’s voice, the story travels effectively, first revisiting events in 1933, expanding on elements of the central mystery. The same intrigue that underscores the play Amadeus by Peter Shaffer is a feature that works on these pages, probing into the hesitation and revealed genius of a composer. 

 The emotional power of the story comes through in Melo’s use of historical points and Cavia’s clear depictions of suffering and loss that build a foundation for the contemporary introduction the reader experiences, filling in gaps in character and motivation in a visual and very literary way. Working in a magical and supernatural way, the reader meets the character of Triton, the producer, to convey the devilish aspects of signing a professional contract for an artistic endeavor. This is another use of symbolism that the author and artist include, adding suspense. 

Ballad for Sophie depicts the price of fame, the weight of guilt, the development of a life across times of war and affliction, and the emotional consequences of a life on display. These are themes that such stories have gone to before and almost inevitably address. Arguably, the comics page presents the emotion and experiences of characters more effectively than a prose novel could. The swirling images of sexuality, temptation, and addiction add to the reading, offering a storytelling technique that allows the reader to imagine what the main character is feeling. Movies have been more of mixed bag in exploring fame, sometimes pausing on moments with thoughtful weight and sometimes glossing over them as scenery the viewer expects to see along the way. 

Though these themes may be found in other biographical and autobiographical works, the power of Ballad for Sophie is the way that the story is conveyed, including the ways the artistic choices support the narrative, and the presentation of images that could only exist in the minds of characters. The graphic novel and the innovation found in certain panels lifts the book, as well as the creative turns in the storytelling. With all of this taken in mind, I recommend this book for readers to enjoy. 


As I've spent far more time at a computer screen during covid, I've fallen way behind on doing book reviews. Thanks to Prof. Jason DeHart of Appalachian State University who reached out to volunteer to help, and he will be doing more reviews for us. He also has his own site, Book Love: Dr J Reads. - Mike


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