GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Shenanigans
Yes, the title is “Shenanigans,” with quotation marks already in place. No, I don’t know why. It’s not a direct quote, there’s no place named Shenanigans in the story, and it doesn’t seem to be an ironic “air-quote,” either. (There’s more than one bar in this book that could easily have been named Shenanigans, but none of them actually are.) It’s just an annoying, unnecessary tic.
“Shenanigans” is pleasant but unexceptional, a frothy romantic comedy that I suspect started off as a screenplay and probably would have worked better in filmed form. It takes place in St. Louis, where our creepy main character, Holden, gets kicked out of his girlfriend’s apartment at Christmas-time for obsessively playing videogames instead of going out to dinner with her. I’m not sure how old he is; he seems to be a student, but we really don’t get a sense of his normal day-to-day life or a solid idea of what he does for a living. The one thing we see him doing seems like a college work-study program: teaching kids to play hockey. Although…he does seem to sponge off the women in his life, which may be a clue as to his lifestyle.
Holden meets a young woman named Casey, and moves in with her that night. (Help me out here: is that as weird and unrealistic as I think it is, or are twenty-somethings really that friendly these days?) They also sleep in the same bed the night they meet, but don’t have sex, which is just a bizarre combination, especially since the story takes pains to point out that they didn’t have sex. Between the scenes that we see, they drift into something like a normal boyfriend-girlfriend relationship (except for the fact that he’s sponging off her as he did with his last girlfriend), and presumably they start having sex at some point…though the story doesn’t feel the need to explain that point.
Then the story finally starts: Casey has been working as a waitress, but decides to start tutoring college students in math instead. Her qualifications: she’s really really good at mental arithmetic, and she’s totally hot. (No, seriously. There’s no sign that she has a math degree, or anything of that nature. So she seems to be coaching college students in, at best, high-school algebra. My opinion of the fine colleges of St. Louis is still diving as I type this.) Since she’s totally hot, all of her clients are horndog young men who think they’re going to score with her, so her tutoring sessions consist mostly of her edging away from them. She doesn’t seem to realize this, which I suppose makes her some sort of idiot savant…or maybe not a savant. Speaking of not realizing things, her advertisements are clearly based on those for prostitutes, which Holden instantly realized (well, he would, wouldn’t he?), but Casey just doesn’t see.
Holden is consumed with jealousy, in a complete turn-about from his established character as a grumpy, self-obsessed slacker who starts ignoring the woman he lives with about five minutes after she has sex with him. And so he comes up with the requisite big stupid romantic-comedy plan to monopolize Casey’s time and keep her out of the hands of all of those other guys just like him. It’s a dumb plan, of course, but that’s the kind of story this is, so that’s not a fault – his plan needs to be dumb. But it isn’t quite dumb enough, and the running around he does to keep the plan going is the kind of thing that is much, much funnier when physical people do it instead of drawings.
I’ll buy the fact that comics can do romantic comedy; Andi Watson has done several stories along those lines that are excellent. But what comics aren’t as good at is physical comedy, and “Shenanigans” relies on physical comedy an awful lot. Holden is a complete klutz – male comedy archetype #7B – who trips over random objects and causes havoc at plot-appropriate times. Oh, and Casey’s brother – who seems to exist purely as comic relief in a plot that’s already a comedy, and has the sort of part that I always assume was written into a movie script to accommodate the current popular obnoxious comedian – plays random, cruel, obnoxious practical jokes at odd moments as well. It seems to be his only character trait, in fact.
So “Shenanigans” tries to get a whole lot of its laughs from pratfalls, things squirting into people’s faces, and other physical comedy. Now, that works in live-action, where it’s a real person falling down or getting pie-faced. And it works in animation, where the illusion of motion can make the audience consider the characters real. But it doesn’t work on the comics page – at least, not in this case; I’ll allow the possibility that it could work somewhere else – because we know these “people” are just pen lines on paper, and because they don’t move.
I don’t want to give away the whole plot, so I’ll have to be vague about how the ending doesn’t work, but it doesn’t. For a story like this to work, Casey needs to forgive Holden for all of his stupidities and (dare I say it?) shenanigans, but she needs to have a good reason to forgive him. In “Shenanigans,” she doesn’t; he screws up the whole situation (as the plot requires), and then…doesn’t actually fix anything, or make a grand gesture, or a passionate speech, or anything. He just begs her to forgive him, and she does. And I wanted to yell out to her, “No, you don’t! He’s got to do better than that!” He had to, but he didn’t.
I’ve heard recently that comics reviews need to talk about the art, so that’s next. Holmes has a perfectly respectable style, with good body language and facial expressions, and usually good layouts. (Although my problem with the physical comedy may stem from a defect in his panel-to-panel storytelling – or in my ability to follow physical action on the page, I suppose.) There’s a Scott McCloud-esque look to many of Holmes’s figures that’s quite appealing. But – and this is a big but – he draws his characters without pupils 99% of the time, which drove me nuts. “Shenanigans” takes place in an entire world of Little Orphan Annies, with giant white eyeballs lunging out of the pages in nearly every panel. I’m sorry, but that’s just creepy.
In the end, I found “Shenanigans” annoying for both plot and scary-eyeball reasons. And that’s a pity, since it’s a story I wanted to like, in a genre I do like. Holden and Casey are reasonably interesting characters, though they’re both seriously deformed by the needs of the plot. The secondary characters, on the other hand, are all complete caricatures. And I don’t think the style of storytelling, or the specific story being told, really work as comics. Less-picky readers may like this better than I did.
written by Ian Shaughnessy; illustrated by Mike Holmes
Oni Press, 2007, $14.95