June 23, 2021

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Will McPhail Makes Us All Look Inward With IN.

There’s nothing like feeling alone in a crowded room. Having the words to speak without the know how to say them is a frustration that only loneliness can appreciate. We all have, from time to time, experienced moments of solitude where our every desire to connect with people never could quite extend past the awkward thoughts spoken only inside our head. Those tedious episodes of self-sabotage as you overly analyze every nuanced word you’re about to not say torment you until the bitter end.

Or is it just me?

After reading IN by Will McPhail I feel in the company of at least one other person as he tells the story of Nick, an illustrator in a big city who can’t seem to catch a break ..from his own thoughts. This is a book about self-discovery. This is a book about breaking down walls. This is a book about our inner self. This is a book about everything we feel that often doesn’t get said. This book is about turning our black and white conversations into vast extraordinary blankets of color.

I find it uncomfortably ironic to be sitting here with my laptop as I gaze into its screen trying to come up with the words to express how I felt after reading IN. Sitting here awkwardly as I wrestle with the understanding of whether these thoughts I am thinking are worth saying out loud or not is a conversation of  self taken straight from the black and white pages of the book. Getting to conversations of color, not only with myself but with others, is a sentiment that struck me to my core.

Enough with the small-talk.. how do I really feel?

Struggling with self-doubt and depreciation is a disease. It is a type of mental illness that I wouldn’t wish upon my greatest enemy. (OK, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch because I absolutely would wish that on them ‘cuz fuck ‘em!). Our story here is one that, if you let it, will have you sitting face to face with yourself examining your ability to feel the feelings that your inner self is begging you to feel. “Is this smile on my face a true reflection of what is inside? Or am I simply wearing a mask to avoid the vulnerabilities of letting someone else in?” That is the genius of this story. McPhail takes the simple truths of our human nature to succumb to our own insecurities and forces us to examine our actions and what we are doing about it to improve, to evolve. If you don’t find that as a smart angle of storytelling with comics then I urge you to reach behind your ears and remove the happy-face-mask from your face because it’s blocking your view.

As an acclaimed cartoonist for The New Yorker since 2014, Will McPhail has been showing us his simple truths and often side-eyed jabs dosed in heavy amounts of humor. The newly published Houghton Mifflin Harcourt book, IN, McPhail takes a stab at telling his first story in graphic novel form by using the format of which he knows best (that single panel New Yorker cartoon we all have come to appreciate from him) and stretches it as far is one could to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. This read is exactly as one would expect from a cartoonist with a background such as McPhail’s, the pacing, humor and dialogue choices feel exactly as you’d expect if a single panel cartoon from The New Yorker were given the opportunity to let it’s narrative breath and relax as this one does.

In the beginning we are introduced to the story’s lead character Nick; a wandering young adult seemingly meandering himself through life attempting to play his role, trying to find people to connect with, to exist next to. But before the story begins we are prefaced with a metaphor disguised as a memory of Nick’s. This memory will serve purpose as the pages turn and give the reader enough of a foundation to circle back to that metaphor and re-examine Nick through a different angle. And in doing so it gives the reader time to pause and bring that perspective onto themselves as we begin to inject our very existence into the one we are reading about. The Nick in the story becomes much more than a cartoon on a page, but he becomes a multi-dimensional representation of us all.

Or is it just me?

As the beginning becomes the middle we now have a whole cast of characters. Some small in role, and others fairly large, significant even. McPhail has, at this point, done a wonderful job in developing each character in a way that suites their role in the story. Our central character, Nick, has begun to disentangle his own awkward relationship with conversation and then as the middle becomes the end the larger scope of the story becomes more obvious. That larger narrative being our own relationship with how we define a conversation of color and the “how”, “why”, “when” or “if” we even allow it. McPhail doesn’t only want to use Nick as a loose autobiographical metaphor for human intimacy. What he wants is for the readers of his story to see the simple necessity of human connection by way of conversations of color.

On a very micro level this is an imaginative examination of how one can become aware of their own abilities to navigate through the different levels of conversation, while at the same time this is also a very macro story about the direction of society and how life has become so driven by isolation. Especially timely is this book as we all begin to re-emerge from our pandemic hibernation. This book speaks to identity in more ways than its author may realize. Me writing this brief analytical essay about IN exists in the very same reason that his book also exists. Both McPhail’s IN and my essay in response are an invitation for us all to evaluate and improve our approach to conversation. This book shines a light on conversation allowing the opportunity for the color to shine through. So open up your mind and let those colors spill out, because just as Nick experiences in the final act of the story so will we when we let down the walls and introduce vulnerability to a conversation.

No, it isn’t just me.


IN is in stores now and can be purchased at most places books are sold, or simply by clicking here.