Jeremy Sorese’s The Short While tells the love story of Colin and Paolo over the course of a lifetime, set in a near-future world with sex robots, artist collectives, violent totalitarianism, and the absence of the internet. Sorese’s thick graphic novel explores notions of belonging and pain, optimism and regret, and lust and loss in a mode that recalls the structure and style of Will Eisner’s melodramatic, text-heavy graphic novels - particularly the aesthetic of his later years, as in 2001’s The Name of the Game.
I have read thousands of comics influenced by the visual storytelling of Eisner's pioneering work on The Spirit, but I have seen very few that have mimicked his later-phase pseudo-literary graphic novel approach, where Eisner would attempt to tell a sweeping story like a classic novelist–maybe a Booth Tarkington–with a dose of satire to undercut the grandeur. Eisner’s better-known graphic novels like A Contract with God (1978), A Life Force (1988), or Dropsie Avenue (1995) operate as a smaller-scale version of this mode as well, but The Short While is most similar to The Name of the Game, not only in its use of typeset prose for major portions of the narrative, but in its depiction of the evolution of relationships over a long period of time. For Eisner, it’s three generations and their family dynamics that play out over those many decades. For Sorese, it’s Colin and Paolo who alternate between being together and being apart, as they cycle into and out of each other’s lives, while seeking companionship and comfort in other forms. Both Eisner and Sorese tell love stories, though Sorese is far more generous to his characters than late-era Eisner.
In The Short While, Colin and Paolo first meet when they each leave a party accidentally wearing a leather jacket belonging to the other. The narration implies that a friend was responsible for the swap, the first of many instances throughout the story where a character attempts to bring love into the world, as forced as it might be. Colin and Paolo are established as a bit of an odd couple, both in the way they are drawn by Sorese and in their text-heavy background stories. If they were a comedy team, Colin would be the “straight-man” to Paolo’s comic absurdities. In the context of a gay love story, Colin is set up as the less emotional of the two, while Paolo is a mess of insecurity, doubt, and pathos. Sorese questions and challenges the apparent superficiality of that dynamic throughout the book, but the characters remain doomed to play out their roles even as they attempt to gain agency in their own lives.
Sorese’s artwork throughout The Short While is thick-brushed and gestural. It’s not just the ambition and novelistic structure of the book that echoes the graphic novels of Eisner, it’s Sorese’s figure drawing and layouts as well. Occasionally, characters float in conversation on pages without panel borders. On other pages, the rhythm of symmetrical panels indicates the slowing down of time for dramatic effect. Then there are the numerous pages that take the form of illustrated prose, as Sorese provides world-building details not only about this post-internet, humanistic setting, but about the characters who inhabit such a place.
The plot takes a turn about a third of the way through the book where an extreme act of violence sends Colin and Paolo reeling in different directions. Another version of this story might make that event the central plot of the narrative, but Sorese uses it to explore the character dynamics and the world itself, as Colin and Paolo interface with strange bureaucratic structures and Paolo then goes off on a lonely adventure all his own, even as he tries to find where he fits in. Sorese is masterful when he puts a character or three in a room and explores their relationships, but his world-building is lumpen, incomplete, and often incoherent. In most stories, I don’t expect the author to give me all of the details of the world in which the characters live; an impression of the world around them is all I need. But Sorese seems to go out of his way to detail elements of this near-future, dehumanizing world so that Colin’s and Paolo’s love story becomes submerged in a quagmire of political and social structures that just don’t seem to matter to the story.
Ultimately, The Short While is a character study that stumbles most when it seems to want to be something much larger. Perhaps Sorese was striving for a grand allegory of the queer experience, but his prose explications do a disservice to his visual storytelling. I wish he had trusted the mechanisms of comics more–the simplicity of a page well drawn, the efficiency of word balloons and narrative captions–and didn’t rely on over-explaining an underdeveloped fictional landscape to provide heft to his relatively simple tale. Late-phase Eisner can be clumsy, melodramatic, and over-earnest, and Sorese slides toward those traps at times, but where he stumbles the most is in not trusting himself to show his story instead of page after page of needless telling.