Still, every now and again it pays to stretch oneself beyond the limits of one’s own largely illusory “comfort zone” and to see just what it is that everybody else is reading — and there’s no doubt that Johnson’s long-awaited new graphic novel, No One Else (Fantagraphics, 2021) will be among the year’s most talked-about releases, especially when it comes to the so-called “bookstore crowd.” If one wanted to take a cynical view of things, in fact, it wouldn’t necessarily be at all out of line to say this comic essentially plays directly to that demographic’s sensibilities, being — as the title of this review would suggest — an inherently refined work by its very nature. But it’s that other world in the title, “rawness,” that kept me turning the pages with this one —
If there’s one shill Johnson excels at above all else, it’s representing Woody Allen-esque emotional austerity in a manner every bit as understated as such a mindset/personality type demands in order to come across as authentic. Where his visual metaphors (in this case a recurring motif of burning sugar cane fields) can come off as heavy-handed at best, too obvious by half at worst, his depictions of everyday life and its quiet alienations are never less than absolutely masterful. In a manner not entirely unlike Adrian Tomine back when he was still trying, Johnson’s characters say volumes by saying very little and letting his art do the talking. Brandon’s father is never mentioned, but we know the kid misses him all the same; Charlene’s vocabulary doesn’t even include the word “loneliness,” but we know it’s eating her alive; her father’s physical and mental abuse is never explicitly referenced until the late going, but it hangs over every page regardless. This is powerful, emotionally raw stuff, covered in the “nothing to see here, folks” trappings of multiple layers of mostly-silent denial.
To that end, while this is a brisk enough read, it’s nevertheless a draining and difficult one. Family dysfunction is never pretty, of course, family dysfunction that’s forever swept under the rug even less so, but damn if this isn’t the way reality plays out for any number of people attempting to get by in a late-stage capitalist economy that largely survives on the denial of intimacy at all levels in order to keep chugging along while it destroys the very natural world upon which its (and our) survival is dependent. In much the same way as his characters, Johnson addresses this without directly addressing it, hence those rather clumsy metaphors just referenced, but when he allows his characters to address it for him by dint of their actions and reactions, or lack thereof, the results are equal parts sublime and harrowing.
Yes, this is a self-consciously “sophisticated” comic. And while its central characters have their struggles, it’s fair to say they don’t seem terribly challenged in terms of making ends meet economically — apart from a very brief scene where Charlene’s credit card is turned down to pay for her med school exam, which seems to be resolved “off-page” in fairly short order. That in no way invalidates their traumas or mental and emotional hardships, though, and to dismiss them outright as the trials and tribulations of the “privileged” is to engage in a sort of reverse-snobbery that I don’t care to be a part of. Johnson is a master of his craft, and I can always appreciate exceptional cartooning, regardless of whether or not said style of cartooning is my usual cup of tea. There are other ways of making really good comics than the various and sundry methodologies and aesthetic approaches that I prefer — Johnson’s book serves as a very welcome reminder that understatement can sometimes be the most powerful statement of all.
No One Else is available for $16.99 from the Fantagraphics website at https://www.fantagraphics.com/products/no-one-else?_pos=1&_psq=no%20one&_ss=e&_v=1.0&variant=40119470915745
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