As an object, The Basil Plant is not much to look at. The same can’t be said of author Laura Lannes’s cartooning — as economical and as energetic as a well-delivered joke, with a thick, versatile line, and figurework that alternately recalls Anders Nilsen and Gabrielle Bell as played for laughs. The package containing that cartooning, however, is a bog-standard staple-bound minicomic, about 4.5″ x 3.5″, black and white, xeroxed, one page = one panel, its sole two-page spread not even located in the center of its 28 pages. You’ve seen a million of these things if you’ve been to a single small-press show. If you pick it up with the intention of reading it, you’re probably disinclined to be impressed. This is because you’re a sucker, which is what Lannes is counting on. The Basil Plant relies on your belief that you know what you’re in for. You think you know, but you have no idea.
When considering a comic this simple in form, the natural assumption is that function will follow. Panel by panel, page by page, the story will proceed in linear fashion, building meaning like a block tower. It’s comics as a solidly written college essay, or even just one paragraph therein, each sentence serving just enough of a purpose to connect its neighbors, the whole equalling the sum of its parts precisely. That’s how it seems The Basil Plant will operate—at first. First-person narrative captions float above a series of self-portraits, describing a method of anxiety management that’s novel, though not dramatically so: “When my anxiety is too great to bear, I sit in the sun and eat a pear. “I can’t remember how I got to this method, but it works.” There are flourishes here that might cause your ears to prick up a bit — that rhyme in the first panel, or the way Lannes situates herself on a park bench with no visible means of supporting itself, floating in midair as if existing for no reason other than to support her.
But as the comic continues, the onset of cold weather forces her to abandon her routine in favor of attempting to maintain the titular basil plant, given her as a gift by a friend as an indoor alternative. At this point, there’s every reason to believe Lannes’s declaration of purpose, “I dedicated myself to the basil with diligence and ardor,” and assume a methodical chronicling of gardening, and coping, will follow.
That’s when The Basil Plant begins its surprising, rewarding, very funny, completely unpredictable parabolic arc away from the x-axis of logic. It begins when the basil plant dies: “Without any way to control my anxiety, I began pulling out my own hair.” More extreme than expected, perhaps, but far from unheard of. The next panel, though? An apartment kitchen, its floor completely covered in gross squiggly hairs like a barber shop that isn’t going to pass its next health inspection, as Lannes’s barefoot roommate looks down and thinks “Fucking eww.” The plane is pulling away from the runway. “My boyfriend left me, tired of this shit,” she continues on the next page; “I’m tired of this shit!” the boyfriend yells through a slammed door in the very same panel, with dumb-funny redundancy. Lannes sits and plucks and drops out of school and gets fired from her job and, finally, figures out “the source of my anxiety: being a woman,” a female symbol and exclamation point filling her thought balloon like the proverbial lightbulb.
Then, in the comic’s one and only two-page/panel spread, we hit cruising altitude: in a wall of text that surrounds a drawing of He-Man, nude and with a veiny erect penis, Lannes explains how “a clandestine witch in the Andes Mountains” used “black magic and a copy of Men’s Health” to turn her into a man. Manhood, in Lannes’s hands, is more or less a mode of conveyance for a world-beating hardon, spraying semen into the air as He-Man bellows “Bring me a sandwich!!!” The final two panels fill up their pages with beautifully hatched mountain landscapes, atop which He-Man stands triumphant. “I wanted to take over the world. I had taken over the world. That was my world.” Then He-Man, his back turned to us, preposterously muscled arms bent to the unseen spot located opposite his bare ass, looking down, and the caption “I peed on the world.” THE END.
It’s quite a performance: A tumblr-style slice-of-lifer about mental health with hints of magic realism accelerates without warning into a gross-out lampoon of masculinity with a pee-pee joke for a punchline, with each break from the previous tone and rhythm funnier than the last. And beneath the absurdity, real heat, real exhaustion and disgust with the socially constructed dichotomy of woman and man, and with the bodies trotted out in that constructed dichotomy’s support. There’s a webcomic version, too; what its six-panel grids lose from the minicomic’s single-panel staccato, they gain in allowing Lannes’s sturdy, lively cartooning to breathe, but I’m glad I read it as a mini first. I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.