Well, my goodness, have I never said anything on the subject of Erica Henderson? What a tremendous oversight! Allow me to state now, for the record, that I am firmly in favor of Erica Henderson. Aces in my book.
But then, I don’t suppose that’s likely to stir too much controversy. She’s no obscure indie darling - she drew The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, 2015 to 2018 and covers after, teamed with writer Ryan North. A defining run from what was, in hindsight, a particularly fecund moment at the House of Ideas. Now, of course, the very idea that Squirrel Girl was going to roll up with one of the most significant and critically-acclaimed Marvel books of the new century was not perhaps a development most people saw coming. The right creators met the right cultural moment. North’s clever scripts, filled with witty characters talking their way through problems, were the perfect spur for Henderson’s ingratiating and surprisingly versatile character work.
It was, in hindsight, the kind of rollicking successful run that should by rights set up a creator to do whatever the hell they want until the end of forever - and gratifyingly, that seems to be precisely what has happened. Henderson is now two books deep into what appears to be an ongoing collaboration with writer Alex de Campi. The team premiered at Image with 2020’s Dracula Motherf**ker, a very good book, if you haven’t read it. Don’t let those too-cute-by-half asterisks scare you off. Frankly, it’s a terrible title inasmuch as it prepares the reader for something a bit more tongue-in-cheek than a decidedly very-much-not-fucking-around visceral story about a genuinely evil Dracula being hunted by his own angry brides.
According to the Grand Comics Database—without which I would be a helpless babe in the woods—De Campi’s first comics work was a 2005 series for IDW called Smoke, drawn by... that can’t be right, it says Igor Kordej. In my day, you got your start writing something for the back 40 of Marvel Comics Presents, perhaps featuring a member of the Soviet Super Soldiers, and you were happy for the opportunity to put words in Ursa Major’s mouth (muzzle?) - you don’t just start off pitching to Igor Kordej! Well, good for her. As with Dracula Motherf**ker, so too with the reason we’ve gathered here today: Parasocial, the forthcoming second original graphic novel De Campi / Henderson collaboration. It’s a book about the perils of fame in the age of the internet, as the title might imply. It will be available in stores on October 10th.
The internet is very good at enabling obsession. Everyone who uses it, regardless of their level of fame, has to negotiate the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable for public consumption. As someone who has written a fair amount of autobiographical material, I can report from personal experience there’s a delicate balancing act between what you need to share and what you cannot share. You’re collaborating with your audience to create a version of yourself that you can feel comfortable allowing to represent you in public spaces. The version of you that exists in your social media feed—whatever your poison, Twitter, TikTok, Facebook—is always and forever a carefully curated illusion. Forget it at your peril.
Now, add even just a tiny smidgen of fame to the proceedings, and you’re dealing with a powder keg. Famous people are supposed to live fabulous lives, even when they don’t. Flash fact: most famous people don’t live fabulous lives! That’s actually important here, as our protagonist, Mr. Luke Indiana, is the perfect model of a star in the social media era: not really that important, in the scheme of things, but with just enough juice to be able to make a decent living among the middle-tier of the nerd celebrity pecking order. An actor famous for a memorable role on a middling sci-fi TV show, "Rogue Nebula," the kind of thing that most of the people involved with understand isn’t really that “good,” but which nevertheless earns a devoted fan base through the appeal of watching vaguely attractive actors playing vaguely interesting characters. And, of course, winking at the peanut gallery just enough to keep the shippers fed. I mean, Supernatural ran for 15 fucking seasons and that show was absolutely unintelligible from first to last. Nice work if you can get it.
Or, it is until the show inevitably dies and you’re left with the long lingering afterglow of the con circuit, taking photos with fans who are fundamentally far more invested in what you do than you yourself have ever been. Cue Bill Shatner on SNL shouting “Get a life!” That’s the dynamic Mr. Indiana faces. He would very much like to have a career beyond a decade spent playing a robot on a TV show, but in the meantime he’s not above charging suckers-- er, his wonderful fans, exorbitant prices for photos at regional cons. Bluntly, Luke Indiana is not a particularly good person. He’s contemptuous of his public, of his career, and of the people in his life. The story begins as he’s navigating a divorce brought on by his own rakish inattention. But he makes his money being larger than life, blandly handsome and reflexively charismatic in the way that flatters the cherished illusions of blessedly normal people living supremely unsatisfying lives.
Enter Lily. Not to put too fine a point on it, Lily is a stalker, spending every available dollar on scraps of affection from a man who emphatically has no idea who she is, and who very much values the figurative and literal plexiglass wall separating him from his admirers. Now, there’s an obvious touchstone here, so obvious that every bit of press for the series mentions it right off: this is clearly a riff on Misery, one of the most famous stories by the most famous storyteller of our lifetimes. My ARC even says, right on the back, “A thrilling, zeitgeist-capturing modern spin on Misery.” The story itself namechecks Stephen King, so clearly it’s a debt incurred in good faith. And, of course, it’s not like King is the only person who’s ever written on the subject, but saying something has a similar premise to the 1996 Robert De Niro / Wesley Snipes thriller The Fan just doesn’t have the same juice. Would it have been fun to see De Campi and Henderson pretend to never have heard of Misery? I submit that would have been hilarious, but there’s a reason I don’t work in publicity.
All of which is well and good, but this is comics. Does it look good? It sure does. Henderson is doing it all here, and the finished product is a true thing of beauty. There’s an intentional contrast between the constant insertion of digital text, be it in the form of tweets, DMs, actual text messages. All the ways we leave trails across the digital landscape. They’re butting against the art, defined throughout by Henderson’s supple, organic line. What an interesting line she has! At times tentative, always gestural. Just based on exposure to Squirrel Girl I wouldn’t necessarily have gotten the resemblance to Tony Salmons, but by God I certainly do see it now. They share a commitment to expressive body language as the key to composition. There’s a facility with the way the human body expresses itself through movement that could only be the result of endless hours of minute observation. No way to fake that.
What will draw most attention, however, is the color. Having just recently flipped through Dracula Motherf**ker I confess to being quite surprised with the present volume. The previous book was defined by darkness and rich saturation, reds and blacks that soaked into the page, pulsating and febrile. Definitely fit with that book’s vibe, taking Gene Colan as a foundation stone for drawing evil as a kind of miasmic ether. There’s nothing at all ethereal about the danger here. Lily is a very real, very physical presence, nothing at all supernatural. Every scene has its own palette. Luke on the side of the road is colored in bright, faded pastel, surrounded by heavy blackness hanging by the abyss of a Texas night. Lily carries with her a lavender theme, such as can suddenly veer into bright crimson or iridescent pink, depending on whether the scene reflects sudden, sharp violence, or delusional whimsy. Occasionally there’s an establishing shot in plain fluorescent light, the dull and descriptive brown and beige of modern American interior design. These flashes of realism feel more frightening than anything else in the book.
But listen to me, I do go on! Fact is, I could filibuster on Ms. Henderson’s color choices here for the rest of the day. She’s really good at color, is what I’m saying. Feels in places like watercolor, even though I’m pretty sure it’s digital. The lettering is digital as well, and it’s perhaps to be expected that digital fonts are standard even for an exquisitely handcrafted book like this. One of these days people are going to figure out they can still letter by hand using digital tools, and that day will mark an evolutionary step forward for comics, given that even the best applications of digital fonts still look unavoidably like digital fonts set down square on the middle of beautiful illustration, dead lines on the page. But, alas, I fear that horse hasn’t just left the barn, the barn has been razed and replaced with a gas station. That’s just how people letter now. Don’t mind me, I’ve got some clouds to chide.
Anyway. Erica Henderson? A real talent, if you ask me. Given the freedom and the inclination she will almost certainly continue down the path as one of the preeminent cartoonists of her generation. I look forward with great anticipation to seeing what she and Ms. De Campi next have in store for us.