This graphic novel is just too damn good to be Will McPhail’s first book-length project. He has to have a drawer-full of stuff, or maybe he’s published short work somewhere. The drawing I completely believe; I’ve seen his cartoons and they’re assured enough that I believe he could easily make the jump from single panels to juxtaposed images. But the story here? How does someone go from a one-line joke to a full-realized story of almost three hundred pages?
So, um, yeah, this is pretty good. In. is apparently the first long narrative Will McPhail has created, and it works from beginning to end.
It’s about this guy, Nick, who lives in a big city (not unlike McPhail, who lives in Edinburgh, though this city is more vaguely New York) and works as an artist (also not unlike McPhail). He’s got a sister, Anne, and a mother, Hannah, and early on he meets a woman, Wren, who could turn into a girlfriend if everything goes right.
But he feels like he doesn’t connect with people, like he just skates across the top of conversations, saying generic things back and forth with people, and never gets to know anyone. He’s not sure if he wants to get deeper into other peoples lives, but he feels like he’s missing something, as if he’s just play-acting at life. In fact, he’s actually play-acting in the first contemporary scene of the book, as if this is how he thinks adults, or normal people, act with each other.
But then he connects, unexpectedly – he says something really honest and really listens to the answer. McPhail illustrates this conversation, and similar ones later in the book
, as a surreal scene that Nick falls into – it’s related to the topic, loosely and visually, but McPhail is not illustrating what Nick learns. Instead, he’s showing what it feels like: a visual, comics metaphor for a deep human connection.
The rest of the book looks like McPhail’s cartoons: line art with light washes of gray for emphasis and texture. But the surreal sections are fully painted, and striking every time they appear. (McPhail also signposts that a color scene is about to begin by zooming into the speaker’s face and showing their eyes in color: another nice visual metaphor about seeing that only works in comics.)
I don’t want to detail what the story is about from there: every story is in the telling of it. Nick does start out a bit immature, a bit unconnected – that’s the point – and learns how to be different. Along the way, McPhail does things right both big (those surreal scenes, the overall flow of the book, all of the characterization) and small (a dozen throwaway joke names for coffee bars and alcohol bars, an amusingly arch depiction of Nick and Wren’s first sexual encounter).
One of the most impressive things, particularly for a first book, is that I can point to something like a dozen things that McPhail does really well, and nothing at all that I’d seriously criticize. No book is perfect, but I’d be hard-pressed, even as a former editor, to point to anything in In. that I’d have red-penciled or asked for revisions on.
So: yeah. Really impressive. Thoughtful, deep, meaningful, lovely. Takes advantage of the comics form brilliantly, though I can still see someone wanting to turn this into a movie. (They’d probably screw it up, since it’s already as good as it can be, but it would have four great parts to entice various actorly types.) If you haven’t read it, you probably will want to.