When last we checked in, for 2019’s Silver Sprocket release of Lorna, Benji Nate’s work held a pleasant roundness. The word I circled back around at the time was “cute,” perhaps a tendentious adjective but clearly the desired effect. That volume seemed held together by a handcrafted, dashed-off aesthetic, the kind of style that gets its power from the appearance of effortlessness. Of course it isn’t actually effortless, but the day is carried by the air of nonchalance. Charm multiplied by the casual and the kawaii.
Checking back in for Girl Juice, we see a ripening of style. Immediate touchstones here are the likes of Ron Regé and Kevin Scalzo, two artists who both ended up a lot more important in hindsight than at the time, to me at least. There’s that similar understanding of the panel as a unit of design first and foremost, abstract lines and bold flat colors that dismiss even the intimation of mimesis in favor of broad industrial expressiveness. But, zoom your peepers in to Nate’s line - what do you see? It’s nowhere near as neat as it looks on first glance. Not laid down with a ruler or, worse, sprung from point to point with the click of a mouse. This line actually has a great deal of personality. Get your loupe out to examine up close and it even looks a bit tossed off. Not as in lazy, but intimate. A line with personality.
The color palette does a lot of the heavy lifting here. Those flat, rich pastels seem like the province of a more technically labored style - you know, lines laid down with the ruler to make precise, in the grand ACME tradition. But there’s nothing alienated here. Get your eyes up close to the page. Despite a bit of surface resemblance in practice it’s much more Skelly than Drnaso. Bawdy. The kind of line with whom one could share a drink.
Girl Juice originated on the artist's Patreon and Instagram, and its pages betray some signs of the initial serialization. They’re funny, for one. Our story focuses on the lives and adventures of four roommates of varying temperament - meaning in practice, three vaguely normal people and one borderline sociopath, Bunny. The latter is what an older generation might have called “boy crazy” and her commitment to the bit is the main driver of much of the strip’s humor. For instance, an early strip gives us the much more reserved Nana returning home to the apartment and running into one of Bunny’s beaus, Timmy, who we are informed is “a soft 6’4.” Nana responds, “He has the posture of a giant who lives in a Hobbit house,” to which Bunny answers, “I know! It’s so hot I can hardly stand it.” After the breakup, the revelation that Timmy wasn’t that hot, he was “just tall,” inspires a hysterical meltdown on Bunny’s part. Well, it made me laugh.
Bunny and her three roommates are forced into close quarters due to the fact that it’s 2023 and even two grown adults can’t afford their own place anymore. Tula and Sadie would love to have an apartment to themselves, but they’re stuck having to share space with aggrieved heterosexuals. Nana starts bringing clowns home to fuck, which sounds all well and good, but I’m not being figurative. She starts going out with Bop-It, a red-nosed clown who happens to be just standing around in the foyer when Bunny comes downstairs after a long evening of pegging some rando in her room. Nothing quite like a dead-eyed clown hanging out next to the coat rack when you’re walking around strapped, one supposes. Eventually, Nana eliminates the middleman and decides to go to clown school, which seems vaguely immoral.
Longer narratives soon cohere out of running gags. The gang go for a camping trip. When they actually get to the wilderness, Bunny is scandalized by the trees, breaking out in stress acne and putting on her emergency glasses after losing a contact in the dirt. Reverting to primal dork still doesn’t stop her from tracking down a group of strange boys they meet at the next campsite over. Somehow in the course of events, Tula ends up shooting one of the boys in the butt - as in, with a real gun, for which she has a permit and practices two times a week down at the range. But nonetheless, Bunny is able to goad her into shooting the firepit after the flame goes out and they can’t get it to start up again. That has to work, right? Sad trombone!
Bunny’s mom comes to visit, and it becomes immediately clear that her mom is an awful person - petty and judgmental, and convinced Bunny’s bad skin is why she isn’t already married. Bunny confronts her mom after her dog is insulted. She admits to having a great deal of premarital sex, at which point her mom says “I’ll see you in hell,” and walks away. Some context is provided here for the fact that Bunny has supposedly only ever seen one movie that didn’t have penetrative sex - she wasn’t allowed to watch movies until she turned 18, because her mom is a bitch. There are reasons why she acts the way she does. She may be a slutty Cartman, but not without some rationale.
The longest sequence in the book is also its last extended narrative, “Tallulah’s Demon”. This story begins with the understanding that the house is haunted, and we don’t just mean Bop-It. There’s a poltergeist wreaking havoc on Tula’s webcam after she accidentally leaves it streaming. As dangerous as that may seem, the fact that her channel explodes in popularity the moment an evil ghost appears creates perverse incentives. Turns out that obsessing over social media stats isn’t perhaps the healthiest way to live. One of the more subtle tricks over the course of these strips is the illustration of just how many seemingly normal human interactions have been infiltrated by transaction. Just an endless hustle culture pile-on at every turn. The medium and the priest called in to assist with the demon are both themselves social media mavens. Every action is recorded and commodified by the need to produce content at all hours of the day - either for monetization, or just hitting those compulsory likes. These little glowy boxes are pretty good at manipulating our natural production of dopamine and serotonin. In the end, the ghost is bested, but not before the curse is passed on to another.
So: Girl Juice, by Benji Nate, new collection from Drawn & Quarterly. Goodness! Nate is moving up in the world. If Lorna was a bit more cute than funny, I think Girl Juice reverses that ratio in a pleasing manner that points to Nate’s maturation as a creator. This is still cute, yes, but also genuinely quite funny. The kind of progress you’d hope to see, frankly.