Writer: Sara Ryan
Artist: Carla Speed McNeil
Publisher: Dark Horse
Release Date: October 30, 2013
If the scariest thing you can imagine is turning into your parents, then maybe you should go out and pick up Bad Houses this Halloween week. That’s not entirely a joke; Bad Houses is the product of two finely aware young minds, and in its love story/Bildungsroman, this compilation also investigates intense issues that emerge as one steps into adulthood. Anne is an unemployed photographer who lives in the aptly-named Failin, Oregon; Lewis works for his mom, who organizes estate sales for a living. Both characters are young adult children of single mothers. Somehow they come together, spark, and try to both understand their parents and leave the older generation’s legacy behind.
Writer Sara Ryan and artist Carla Speed McNeil sharply capture the genuine and desperate longing to forge your own way, whether your parents have their act together or not. The creators clearly have perspective on that sentiment (the older adults are rendered with the same sensitivity as the younger ones) and can still relate to it. Here’s where the central metaphor comes in: going to an estate sale derives as much from morbid curiosity as the desire to find a bargain. As per the former sentiment, what did the recently deceased hang onto? How aware was he or she that the end was near? It makes you think about your own mortality and your own piles of stuff, the tangible evidence of your own history.
Growing up in a town burdened with failure and history (old buildings that still stand, not due to preservation efforts but merely because no one’s made an effort to tear them down), Anne and Lewis feel stuck, defined not only by their parents’ ideas of who their children are, but also by the smallness of their vista. There’s a key moment in the story when the pair wanders into an empty apartment, delighted by its blank canvas: a chance to write their own narrative rather than live the outlines already sketched.
But Bad Houses is more than just a tale of young love and the way life opens up when you find someone who clicks. The book operates in a kind of clockwork universe, a.k.a. a small town, where everyone is connected in some fashion. Even seemingly random graffiti serves as a marker of past significance. Regular flashbacks illuminate, where in clumsier hands they might have intruded. This balancing of neatness and messiness is all handled beautifully, with Ryan’s strong, direct writing paired with McNeil’s ability to capture character. Indeed, the grimaces McNeil gives her faces call to mind Jaime Hernandez’s ability to lay out a twisted mouth and a furrowed brow, producing something endearing and cute. Bad Houses is not only notable among Dark Horse’s large catalog, where it could easily lie buried, but it deserves your attention as an excellent quarter life crisis work of graphic art.