Beverly, by Nick Drnaso. Reading a Nick Drnaso story is the comics equivalent of watching a Todd Solondz film. There's an almost crude flatness of design and affect that belie the heart-rending, soul-destroying events. Drnaso's art takes some of its cues from the same influences that Dan Clowes drew from, only he takes that bland aesthetic a step further, making his figures like not unlike the sort of stiff characters one might see in a promotional pamphlet. This is not to say that Drnaso doesn't smartly include a number of clever and pointed storytelling cues; indeed, his skill in that regard is a key in getting across subtle plot points without beating the reader over the head with supporting narrative text. It's just that Drnaso has a way of lulling the reader with a series of repetitive, visually bland images and then suddenly inserting a surprising, disturbing and altogether game-changing image that snaps the reader out of that expected rhythm.
The book is a loosely-connected series of stories that take place over the course of about twenty-five years. For the most part, it focuses on the secret and inner lives of children and teenagers and the disconnect between children and their parents. It's also about social awkwardness, as the first story (originally published as a mini by Oily Comics), "The Grassy Knoll", illustrates. A quite and polite teen named Tim is paired up with Sal on a park-cleaning job, mostly because no one else can deal with Sal's social weirdness. The way Drnaso portrays him as someone missing an understanding of social cues makes him a clear Asperger's case, right down to detailing the minutiae of his interests. For his part, Tim just wants to work, not cause a fuss and hang out with the cute girls he meets on the job. A guileless request to transfer over to be with them is inferred as yet another complaint about Sal, who is then fired. The inscrutably sad and strange expression on his face after he's fired is remarkably subtle, revealing confusion as much as anything. Drnaso early on nails the banal language of teens with regard to surface interactions, especially with regard to peer pressure activities like drinking and partying.
"The Saddest Story Ever Told" is a remarkably masterful and understated story about the mother of one of the girls from the first story (a blond named Cara) who silently sits and watches a screener of a new sitcom's pilot for evaluation purposes. The show is a scathing satire of typical broadcast pabulum, but Cara's mom is excited by it and critiques it, taking notes, because it gives her a sense of purpose. When it becomes obvious by the questions they have to answer afterward that the network is only interested in their reaction to the commercials that were part of the show, Cara's mom, a perfectly-designed character (all blocky and big) sits silently and dejectedly on the coach. Cara doesn't say a word throughout but weeps into her pillow afterwards: is she crying in empathy for her mom or crying because she doesn't want to become her mother?
"The Lil' King" is an excruciating account of a family vacation that centers around Cara's family; her parents are taking the kids to the same place they went for their honeymoon. Once again, the chunky character design is stunningly ideal, and the cheerfulness of the parents contrasted against their sullen and quiet children creates non-stop awkwardness. Drnaso is not content with simply awkwardness, however; when the children are alone, the older Cara asks her ten year old brother Tyler why he's so quiet (ironic, since neither said a word to their parents the whole time) as she goes off with a boy she met at the pool. Drnaso then reveals a moment of sexual obsession in Tyler who is discovered by his sister, pushing the awkwardness level to new levels. One clever thing that Drnaso does in the story is have the reader not hear Tyler's thoughts but instead see things through his eyes: he imagines killing and torturing virtually everyone he sees. A scene at the end where his father is lovingly trying to get through to him is incredibly creepy as Tyler's still in his wish-fulfillment mode, seeing himself as a grown man with an S&M hood over his head.
"Pudding" is about broken friendships and the ways in which abuse and trauma lead people to great lengths in order to seek comfort and fulfillment. After growing up with a girl that she once fooled around with as a child, Tina is invited to her friend's birthday party. The story features the conflicts that arise between three desperate people. Tina brings a friend/sort of romantic interest to the party and then promptly ditches him. Charlotte clearly has no friends and is ashamed of her past with Tina. The guy is sullen and angry, and one questions why he's even around someone as clearly as flaky as Tina. Things get awkward, weird and angry in a hurry in this story, but all of that self-generated angst is quickly chilled when Tina and her friend see a fatal accident on the side of the road. (It's Cara, which is never explicitly stated but it's obvious and a plot point for later in the book.)
"Virgin Mary" ups the creep and sleaze factor in the story, as a young woman is kidnapped from her job at a pizza joint, sexually assaulted and then is found to be pregnant. When she tells the story and says that her attacker was of Arab descent, that only politicizes an already-tense situation in the small town and turns things even uglier. Drnaso keeps the reader off-balance by constantly shifting the point of view in the story, diverting and deflecting attention before throwing in a huge twist. The twist, which revolves around the real identity and motive of the attacker, is revealed over the course of several pages of a chat transcript juxtaposed against the blandly pretty features of their Anywhere, USA suburb. Once again, Drnaso wrings horror from the banal, as the dumb chat transcripts turn chilling and the girl's desperation is palpable.
The final story, "King Me", sees Tyler as an adult, creepily going to an apparently legitimate massage parlor once a week because of his obsession with the woman who works there. It's a story set during winter, so it's chilling to see him wear a mask not unlike the one he imagined himself wearing earlier in the story. As the story unfolds, we learn that virtually everything he says is a lie, concocted either to make himself look good or at least get him out of talking about something awkward like the death of his sister. The twist here is that he meets a woman at a subway stop who turns to him for help because she's dealing with her own stalker. There's genuine anxiety in the story as they try to lose him, and when Tyler finally finishes his good deed and walks her home per her request, he turns to look at her when she goes back in. The next page has a single, tiny panel in the upper left hand corner as he continues to stare at the house; the implication is that this possibly sociopathic person has now found a new target, even if that obsession is entirely one-sided and theoretical.
Tyler represents something fundamentally broken, someone who wants to connect and create meaning but has no idea how. In that sense, he's representative of so many characters in the book who are looking for something resembling authentic experience but instead find themselves mired in prefabricated lives with predictable outcomes. It's no wonder someone like Sal, an aneurotypical outlier, should cause so much distress; his theories may be delusional but they at at least recognize that life has patterns that he doesn't understand or one to relate to. It's no wonder why Tina reached out to Charlotte, in hopes that they could recreate the one relationship in her life that felt pure and right, even if they had both long moved on from the frame of mind that allowed them to share that moment. Beverly is all about the dyspepsia that can result after a lifetime of being force-fed lies and promises about the rewards that hewing to the social order can bring.