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  • Writer's pictureNora Curry

Humor and Heart: New(ish) Graphic Novels for Adults

Graphic novels as a form might be associated more heavily with action and comedy than with emotion, but some recent additions to our shelves at the Camden Public Library illustrate the profound flexibility of a form that can use both words and pictures to convey its message.

Is it a graphic novel? A picture book for all ages? It's tricky to place a label on English writer/artist Charlie Mackesy's quiet phenomenon The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. For a book so immersed in the natural world, it's hard to believe it was born from Instagram, but that is indeed the origin: Mackesy posted a sketch of a boy and a mole on his social media account, and the attention it garnered led to staggering sales and widespread emotional reactions to the finished product. The collection of sketches grew into a loose narrative in which a despondent boy is joined by first a mole, then a fox, then a horse (get the title?) who form a surprising bond of four and travel the landscape sharing beautiful truisms to support each other. They also share cake. The book is incredibly simple and straightforward in its delivery and yet also quite intricate and deeply moving.

Reviewers have aptly noted that Mackesy's book came at a needed time: it doesn't mask the hard emotions we feel but rather lays them bare and then crafts a sense of healing in the words and pictures that trace the sweet and awe-filled wanderings and ramblings of the titular quartet. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is almost like an act of love. In an interview with Penguin, he shares: "And people inspired me, really. I have some close friends who find life very difficult, and when I sent them, texted them drawings and I saw their responses, that inspired me." Many people have called it life-changing, and if you'd like to see if you feel the same, pick it up at the library for what could easily be a quick and warming perusal... or hours of relishing each page. The messages throughout the book about love, friendship, self-esteem, and coping will likely resonate with most readers, but I imagine each of us could find a page or two between the covers that strike us most profoundly, that are maybe words we need to hear right now. For me, it was the horse's sage words to the boy that "Asking for help isn't giving up... It's refusing to give up."

In contrast to the unabashedly sentimental work of Mackesy, Allie Brosh's popular graphic novels place humor and self-effacement at the forefront, yet in a way, they achieve a result similar to that of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. Brosh garnered a following with her stick-figure-peopled blog that led to a wildly popular debut graphic novel, Hyperbole and a Half, in 2013. 2020's Solutions and Other Problems is a continuation of Brosh's life narrative.... same protagonist, same mind-baffling dogs. Brosh doesn't hesitate to gently poke fun at others (such as with the hilarious tale of the two-year-old for whom she once babysat, whose most fervent fear was.... dandelions). It never feels mean-spirited, though, because if there's someone at the butt of the big joke behind both Hyperbole and a Half and Solutions and Other Problems, it's Brosh herself.

The acknowledgements section of Brosh's graphic novel reminds us that she put the book through its final stages during quarantine, and it sparks an interesting thought: how does a self-described recluse handle quarantine? It is a relief? Is it terrifying? What this consideration brings home is that despite all of our differences, we've all also gone through a lot of the same life-altering events in the last year plus. We may react differently, but on some level, we've shared something quite major. And it's what we share that makes humor possible. When I read a little Allie Brosh story in one of her books, I'm not laughing because I think she's ridiculous. Don't get me wrong. She's completely ridiculous. But I'm laughing because I also can be ridiculous and because I see a little bit of myself in the kind of horrifying thoughts she has and things she does... And of course, because I know that even when she mocks her dogs, she really loves them to bits. It's humor with heart. There couldn't be a wider gap, in most ways, between Mackesy's beautiful charcoal sketches and Brosh's stick figures, but the ability to probe human emotion in the work of both storytellers is staggeringly similar.

You can request both of these books for pickup (The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, Solutions and Other Problems) or visit during our browsing hours to see what other illustrated delights you might find.

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