Aisha Franz, Shit is Real (Drawn & Quarterly, 2018), $24.95, pb.
This book continues and expands upon many of the themes Franz explored in her previous work, Alien (published in English as Earthling), here focusing her exploration of loneliness and the alienation of modern life through the eyes of Selma, a young adult adrift in a vaguely dystopian future that looks pretty much like our present. The book opens in a wasteland, with Selma unable to make contact with the civilized world. As this landscape reappears later in the book, we come to understand it as a dreamscape or a metaphor for the profound anxiety our protagonist experiences at the thought of being cut off from her friends and city, even as both fail to care for her. In fact, no sooner does she claw her way out of this desert and home than her boyfriend announces their relationship is over, returning to her her earthly belongings: a painting of the words “Shit is Real” and an action figure. As Selma restarts her life in a new apartment, an attempt to hang a shelf opens a peephole on her neighbor’s apartment—a parallel world in which another young woman is living a life that seems to be the opposite of Selma’s in every way: fashionable, invited to all the best parties, always traveling, and always in demand. Selma tries squatting in her neighbor’s life—borrowing clothes, social circle, and even, briefly, a boyfriend—but night after night she still finds herself on the same wasteland.
Franz’s art has a smudgy, raw immediacy that works to distract attention away from her remarkable command of the page and from the virtuosic panels that punctuate her otherwise self-effacing style. One feels Franz working to put her art always in the service of her character, whom she approaches throughout with a profound empathy even as she places her life under an unforgiving lens. The haze that hovers over the work gives us a sense of Selma’s subjective view on her life, in which everything seems always one spilled drink away from dissolving into a wash of gray, or being erased entirely.
I confess I felt at first a bit let down by the book’s conclusion, which seemed a bit easy. In what seems to be an abrupt shift, Selma turns away from the attentions of her neighbor’s ex-boyfriend to instead instead take care of Yumi, a woman who was decidedly not there for Selma earlier. Since nothing in Selma’s previous interactions with Yumi had suggested that there was anything more profound or nourishing in this relationship than in any of the other seemingly interchangeable empty encounters we witness, the turn rang hollow. But the more I thought about it, the more I got it (I think): it is not the friendship with Yumi but the determination to care for another (despite the fact that they did not care for you) that is embraced here as the only potential antidote to the loneliness of the modern world. Thus the final page of the book: Selma and Yumi in the wasteland, contemplating together the possibilities of a bright spot in the distant night sky.
Jared Gardner teaches comics, film, and American literature and popular culture film at the Ohio State University. He was the founding editor of Inks and now helps out the amazing new editor, Qiana Whitted, and edits Extra Inks for Qiana and the Comics Studies Society. He has been nominated four times for the Eisners for books he has written or edited, which is a bit weird since his own comics are pretty terrible.