Cartoonist McPhail’s debut graphic novel follows a youngish artist’s desperate search for authenticity in a culture where true selves hide behind performative, perfunctory interactions.
Professional illustrator Nick Moss isn’t sad but wants to be—at least for a night. He’s heard of sad men being sad in sad bars, so he tries on the role for himself, but an attractive young woman named Wren playfully calls him out on his artifice. This meet-cute leads to a fun, steamy, no-strings-attached affair, which weaves through Nick’s everyday struggles to form meaningful connections to his fellow humans—strangers, neighbors, and family alike. Eventually he learns to lean into awkward encounters and finally say something that matters to the other person—transcendent moments that McPhail brings to life by fantastically transporting Nick to vibrant, inspiring vistas for the duration of these fleeting epiphanies. McPhail’s art is exceptional—realistic if impressionistic settings and anatomic figures with cartoonish accents like bug eyes and overemotive gestures. The visuals are scrumptious and the yearning for personal connection is deeply relatable, but the story loses focus with observational bits about pretentious coffee shops and corporate jargon, and the central romantic relationship has a bit too much of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl dynamic to fully resonate. But even when beats feel overly familiar, McPhail presents them with style and grace, deftly moving the story along with subtle, impactful visual cues. Nick isn’t an especially likable character, save for the relatability of his desires, but the eyes McPhail gives him—perfect white circles with pinprick pupils—imbue the awkward and borderline-unpleasant character with the charm of an earnest boob. What more could anyone be when faced with their place in the universe?