Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021
This is New Yorker cartoonist McPhail’s first graphic novel. It is evidently semi-autobiographical: young illustrator Nick can’t connect with people. The opening scene shows him seeking out a bar: they have names like “Your Friends Have Kids Bar,” serving “Weaponized Self-Awareness and Cocktails.” He really has a hard time with small talk, but he somehow clicks with an oncologist named Wren. Yet even after having sex with her he struggles to feel anything, and he has the same distance from his neighbors, his mother Hannah, his sister, and his nephew.
He keeps trying, though, and finally pushes through just performing to make an actual connection with a plumber working in his apartment (the key being, “words that matter”). When that happens the palette expands from black and white to color: first, the big googly eyes of the characters expand to include a colored iris, which is followed by several pages of full color wordless exposition illustrating Nick’s journey. After striking out with his sister and Wren, he makes a connection with his nephew, then with several people he knows.
At this point the story takes dark turn. Nick finally makes a connection with his mom, but only because she has cancer. When he and his sister accompany her to her medical appointment to discuss options, her oncologist is Wren. Of course, Wren turns the case over to another doctor, and the story largely turns to Hannah’s treatments and her slow decline (with the support of her family). After the funeral Nick meets with Wren. When she pushes him to say what he misses about his mother, he answers “It’s not what I miss. It’s the stuff that hadn’t happened yet…I was going to know her.” A final beautiful color sequence shows Wren’s understanding as she visits the memory palace that Nick had always visualized when thinking about his mom. It is a poignant ending that feels full circle, despite a narrative that is sometimes not completely linear.
The Beauty Volume Six
Jeremy Haun & Jason A. Hurley, story; Thomas Nachlik, Matthew Dow Smith, Jeremy Haun & Danny Luckert, art; Nayoung Kim & Brett Weldele, color
Image Comics, 2022
The series ends here, after a big pandemic pause. The collection includes issues #27-29 (published back in 2019) plus the “All Good Things” one shot, an oversized conclusion. The storyline continues from the previous volume, leaving behind the political intrigue and the crime stories of the earlier volumes. Most of the story focuses on Gang-banger Timo and transgender assassin Ezerae and Detectives Foster and Vaughn from The Beauty Task Force, although there is also space for more of the one-shot narratives that the series has always done so well.
In fact it opens with two of them. The first shows a young couple about to have their first child. But they are also negotiating the beginning of the end of the Beauty virus, as they are on the subway train where the first exploding woman makes the news. In the second a young would-be actor named Gerald pursues a career. Just as success is in sight his clock runs out.
At this point over 60 percent of the world population have the Beauty virus. Timo and Ezrae fight their way to revenge, only to find their target dead from the virus. But the mob still seeks vengeance for what they have taken in their retaliation for the death of their mentor. Foster and Vaughan continue to seek answers, Finally Foster exits with his family, and Vaughan stays with the police, transformed into her pre-Beauty form. It is the only statement the series has about the world of the Beauty after the cure. The series may have ended differently without the pandemic, but rarely has the real world mirrored an imagined world so completely (despite the fact that the series began in 2015, well before Covid).