Monday, November 16, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #16: Tom O'Brien

Tom O'Brien is an interesting CCS case, in part because his book Rita features a character that one would assume is out of his wheelhouse. The titular character is of South Asian descent and happens to be a lesbian, qualities that prove to be important but not central to this modest slice-of-life story. There are few big dramatic twists and turns in this story, as O'Brien is more interested in exploring the friendship between Rita and her college roommate Molly. Molly is consistently outgoing and supportive of the slightly shy and reticent Rita, who as the story unfolds is clearly just starting to become comfortable with her sexual identity in public. Again, this is not a "message comic" that pounds this story home; rather, O'Brien is careful to stick to character details instead of resorting to cliche.

Along the way, Rita develops a crush on a liquor store clerk named Lisa and has to dodge the attentions of an ultra-creepy student named Adam. The latter character leers at Rita when she's modeling nude for his drawing class. While he's a familiar sort of creep, the cliched way he's both drawn and acts lacks the kind of nuance that every other character in the book receives. It's obvious that he's a boor with no social skills, but did O'Brien have to draw him with a finger jammed up his nose to hammer that point home? On the other hand, Rita, Molly and Rita's coffee shop boss Jon  are all well-rounded and have inner lives. That's especially true of Rita, who wavers between being an overachiever and a nervous wreck.

Rita eventually drunkenly hooks up with Lisa and they date for a short time, before Lisa breaks up with her. That devastates Rita in the book's best sequences, as her friends try to draw her out of her depressed shell with kind and tender attention. They also note that while Rita starts creative writing again as a result of the break-up, they're concerned because the writing is awful--a hilarious and all-too-true observation regarding overwrought writing during such experiences. Lisa later walks into Rita's coffee shop with her new boyfriend Adam, which is about as explosive as this story gets. That Adam was depicted as little more than a lump with a libido makes this scenario less than plausible, but O'Brien is able to squeeze it both for laughs and poignancy as the book transitions into a trip home for the protagonist. Assailed by her relatives asking her if she's met any cute guys, she has a tender moment with her grandmother who has an understanding of who Rita really is. It's a lovely ending for a book with a languid pace. In terms of the visuals, it's printed in blue for some reason, which doesn't add much and is even a bit distracting. While O'Brien's storytelling is solid, his character design and overall grasp of body language is tenuous. It's clear that this was a book that saw him figuring things out as a cartoonist, getting better in public.

Madam Geneva, O'Brien's history of gin, is more ambitious in terms of its drawings. There's a pleasing scrawl in his character designs and drawings of buildings, as O'Brien is more interested in the impressions of things than the things themselves. His narrative about gin's history as first a medicinal liquid and then later a liquor that inspired crazes and government rebuke, is solidly structured while still retaining plenty of whimsy. It's another way that he found to stretch his muscles as a cartoonist, breaking out of talking heads and settling on history.

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