Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Boy and a Girl

Written by Jamie S. Rich
Illustrated by Natalie Nourigat
Oni Press

Crashing a boring party for free booze, Travis meets a beautiful young woman with similar aims. After an aborted one night stand, Travis seeks out Charley, discovering there is far more to her than meets the eye while harboring secrets of his own. Struggling against the odds just to have a little fun, this story of a boy and a girl is one of the best relationship comics I've read in a long, long time.

Once upon a time, Oni was my go-to Publisher for relationship comics, and while that's not as true as it used to be, this book stacks up favorably against the ones I used to read by Bryan Lee O'Malley, Andi Watson, and others during the middle part of last decade. Starting off by establishing our two main characters as quirky, flawed, and impulsive in just the opening pages, Rich grabs the reader's attention. This may be a case of a missed connection, but we aren't going to see pages upon pages of heartsick reflection, because that's not the type of people Travis and and Charley are.

Instead, switching the narrative back and forth between the pair before merging the stories together. Rich has Travis crafting elaborate plans to find the girl of his dreams while she does her best to settle her old life and move on--including awkward dalliances at boring parties. The two contrasting plans crash into each other with comedic results and lead to a series of philosophical discussions and physical antics that drive the heart of the book. It's in this middle ground where the book really shines, as Rich alternates between playful antics like running away from the Russian Mob to talking about the nature of free will as it applies to those destined for lives they did not exactly choose for themselves.

By the end of the story, no matter how many arguments the deep-thinking Travis can come up with, Charley must meet her fate, though I appreciate that Rich doesn't treat this like it's an absolute evil. After all, no one is completely free from obligations and the plans of others--some of us are just more cognizant of that than others and it gives us more wiggle room in our decisions. The key is what you do with your options, a lesson Charley's last-minute fling and refusal to tell Travis everything about her attest to.

In the end, Rich, through careful clues that build to a "that makes sense" kind of surprise, ends the story by showing us that ultimately, Charley's recognition is better than Travis's denial, because it gives her a freedom he will never have. I absolutely love that Rich doesn't go for the "Gotcha!" moment in driving this point home. We merely see where each one's belief takes them, with the strong sense that dealing with things as they are instead of what you'd like them to be, is the superior path. That unlike Charley, Travis can never make that determination for himself is the only sense of melancholy you'll find in A Boy and a Girl, and because of that, it's an incredibly powerful moment that resonates even through Charley's happy ending.

The script is a pretty madcap ride, but artist Natalie Nourigat matches Rich stride for stride. From the opening pages, where we learn we're in the future not from dialogue buy by the visuals of a flying car and a mildly futuristic city, places us in a time period where humanity has moved forward past petty violence on the streets but not cheating on term papers. Once we're inside the party, Nourigat turns the unimportant members of the crowd into faceless figures taking up space, allowing us to focus on the finely detailed Travis and Charley, who are about to have the encounter that drives the rest of the book. They're friendly and flirty, with Travis depicted as being a bit plan, sort of an Everyman, while Charley is shown to be incredibly pretty. She has curls in her hair that dangle across her cheek, eyes that are bright and expressive, and a smile you'd spot across the room.

In short, she's exactly the kind of woman you'd duck out on your responsibilities for, and it's only because of Nourigat's depiction that Travis' wild actions make sense. All of this is done in just a few pages, before we're rudely taken to the next day's realities. Without going on and on for pages upon pages, our premise is set and the reader's interest is piqued, thanks primarily to Nourigat's work in establishing a visual tone early.

My favorite depiction, though, is probably Gregor, Travis' friend and fellow trouble-maker. He's a slippery eel in Nourigat's hands, changing his looks to fit his plans but always showing a consistency of character design that we know it's him. He's a letch and a liar and looks quite a bit like Monkeypunch's Lupin III in Nourigat's hands, especially when he's exaggerating. While Nourigat's style isn't OEL Manga by my definition, you can tell she's studied the form of Japanese comics and taken some of the elements into her linework, like throwing facial anatomy to the wind in order to emphasize a comedic moment in Rich's script or structuring a scene so that it's minimalist in its elements.

I absolutely love the way that Nourigat's characters flow across the page. Her panel layouts change often, as does her focus, going from longshots to close-ups and medium looks, depending on where she feels the reader needs to be drawn to visually. Her characters react to each other, not the reader, which is something I've come to appreciate in an era where posing is done far too often. When she does take advantage of a moment to give us a splash page, Nourigat makes the most of it, like when Charley comes up out of the water and reveals one of her secrets. She's incredibly gorgeous and we're meant to realize that, even as our eyes process that part of that beauty has a price attached to it. This is a pin-up with a purpose, hanging at the end of a chapter, and Nourigat nails the image.

There are so many other things about the art that I could go into here, but you really have to see it for yourself to appreciate it. I can talk about the way that she subtly keeps the reader at arm's length while Travis and Charley fight or how from the point of that resolution, they're rarely shown more than a few inches apart, their closeness and feelings for each other shown by picking out scenes that make them appear that way, not just talk about it. Combined with a decision to color the book in blue, rather than full color or black and white, which gives the whole experience a different feel than greyscaling or the ever-popular brown tableau that wins Eisners every year, this book is as visually powerful as it is scripted. Both art and words combine to form a book that can be playful and flirtatious right before and after discussing the nature of existence. Turning a dime like that and making it work is what separates a great comic from one that is merely good.

A Boy and a Girl is an extremely strong story, because it does more than just tell the tale of a relationship with obstacles. There's an ethical theme that resonates, thanks to Travis' role as a Philosophy Major (who, like all in the humanities, has no clue what he'll do for a job) and Charley's stolid adherence to the determinism of her fate. Along with artwork from Nourigat that's detailed when it needs to be and comic when it wants to be, this is a hidden gem here at the end of 2013 that Panel Patter readers shouldn't overlook. More comics like this in 2014, please, Oni Press!

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