Arrivals and Departures – November 2023

It’s November and I’m thankful for you, my readers. Only three books this month, to save room for the mashed potatoes.

Business Insider by Grayson Bear

In the first five pages of this story, governed by green and pink Risograph ink, two vaguely canine characters call one another “fam,” discuss podcasts and vibes, and respond affirmatively with “Litty!” These sorts of phrases unfortunately continue to mount up as Business Insider, a comic that presents itself as a suspense-tinged commentary on modern ways of communicating, continues. Joe moves into an empty room in Brendan’s grindset-funded Portland home. There’s more quips about being a “chad,” vegan food, kombucha. Things start to take a sinister and spooky turn for Joe as more is revealed about his live-in landlord. Brendan is all about “manifestation” to the point where he creates a goblin from Joe’s hair in the shower drain. It ends with a couple jokes about “Alexa” and canceling a subscription. With all my focus on verbiage, I wish I had a word for a satire that ends up being the exact thing it’s attempting to satirize, seemingly made specifically about and for an audience of the people being satirized inside the comic.

But what about the drawings? They’re fine. Joe is presented as rounded and innocent while Brendan is pointed and ominous. The golem-like big bad at the end has a cool look. There’s a self-assured playfulness in the work, especially when Bear stretches a face or alters an expression. Insider can stake a firm claim in the genre of anxietycore and I’m sure the shock of the familiar (“I had a roommate just like that!”) can help find it an audience, but I hope this artist has loftier goals than a spoof that’ll be dated in five months. While reading it, I found myself often frustrated, waiting for another shoe to drop or some sort of biting comedic payoff. Perhaps I’m just old, and that’s the real punchline.

Reptile House #12 by various

What’s going on in Philadelphia right now? They’ve got Elliot Bech, Tia Roxae, Anuj Shrestha, Nate Garcia, Molly Dwyer - and that’s just to name a few. Is it the new Chicago? Is Philadelphia the new Florence, Italy!? On to the 12thissue of the Phanatic’s favorite comics collection, Reptile House. This anthology has it all: silly pen names, a stinker or two, some great narratives that end abruptly, pages that aren’t comics whatsoever. You know the drill. But when it shines, it absolutely shines.

I really want to focus on the final story (sample above), untitled as far as I know, by series editor Nick Bunch. This is the second comic I’ve read of Bunch’s, and his stories—a lot like his recurring rodent characters—look rad as hell, but there’s not much behind the eyes. In this one, the two rats are wheeling around towny alleyways pontificating on Dave Navarro’s pierced nipples for seven pages. (But whomst among us has not while jamming out to “Ocean Size”?) Bunch is experimenting with lettering here, frequently turning his jagged typography awry and using backwards “E”s. The results are surprisingly unbothersome, but the art should (and does) speak for itself without the cute calligraphy; Bunch brings a welcome b&w flair and kinetic claustrophobia to his pages that give me a much-coveted Spain Rodriguez-like electric jolt to the dome. I wish he would put a little more oomph into his writing, but I’m glad to see some comics that are chrome-wheeled, ink-injected and stepping out over the line.

Prokaryote Season by Leo Fox

You got to love a title that sends you to Merriam-Webster. A "prokaryote" is a single-celled organism of a type the small ensemble cast of this 168-page graphic novel more or less wish to revert back to. They’re envious of the simple lifeform’s ability to simply be, existing without lust and lies, wants and needs. This ensemble (which seems to appear in Fox’s other comics as well) consists of Sydney, who’s in love with their best friend Laurelie, who’s in a relationship with Trip, a misunderstood masochist who wears a medieval bascinet. There’s also the celestial-headed Starman, one of those character archetypes I can’t get enough of: the smug acquaintance that everyone outwardly abhors. Rounding the cast out is an imaginary hooded jury (see below), always poking around Fox’s flora and fauna, looking like a gang of Phantom Blots. (Mickey Mouse’s most aesthetically slick villain, best drawn by Paul Murry. Here’s a hot take that’s been percolating: Murry is a better Disney comic book artist than Carl Barks. The “good duck artist” simply had dozens of nerdboys playacting a PR department for him. But I digress.)

The majority of this book feels like show-off cartooning, which comics needs a little more of these days. Fox packs the pages with intricate borders, inset panels and a setting of bubbling poisoned vegetation. Luckily for the reader, the character designs are so specific and deft that no one gets overpowered by the trippy trees and bravado page layouts. Back to the story, as Starman serves as a one-wish genie making it so Sydney’s desire for Laurelie is no longer unrequited, but also Laurelie must rely solely on Sydney to live and function. In a very traditional Tragedy sense, things go downhill. Prokaryote Season, in its Shakespearean biospheric whirlpool, expounds earnestly on power and ownership over friends, lovers and the clump of cells that make up your own body. The book is made by someone I assume is young, melancholic and self-conscious, drawing for readers who are young, melancholic and self-conscious, but unlike the earlier Business Insider I didn’t find it aggravating. It was romantic more than anything else. The plot wraps up a little clean and nice for my liking, but you get the definite sense that Fox is an artist working to his full potential, and there’s much more to come.

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I’ve got big plans for December’s column (a theme even), so see you next month, I hope.

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Questions, love letters and submissions to this column can be directed to @rjcaseywrites on Instagram.