Review: Bad Houses

by Derek Royal

Bad Houses – Sara Ryan and Carla Speed McNeil  (Dark Horse Books)

BadHousesThis is the time of year when media outlets — including The Comics Alternative — tabulate their “best” of the year. These lists are, of course, idiosyncratic and are often arbitrary. But they are nonetheless fun to highlight, analyze, ponder over, and debate. One such “best of” list is Time magazine’s “Top 10 Comics and Graphic Novels” as compiled by Douglas Wolk. The assemblage is a curious mix of the popular and the obscure, and while one may argue with Wolk’s choices — is Sex Criminals, only three issues in, really the best of 2013, or might the choice be tinged with solidarity for iTunes having banned the title? — it’s difficult to argue that his list is anything other than deliberative. One title that appears on the Time ranking is Sara Ryan and Carla Speed McNeil’s Bad Houses. And while I have not placed this book in my own “best of” collection for 2013, nor even included it as an “honorable mentioned” for the year, I do find it a compelling work and one well worth reading. This assessment is made all the more poignant by the fact that this is Ryan’s first long-form comic…or “graphic novel,” if you prefer that term. And this narrative is truly novelistic in its intent.

Bad Houses is primarily the story of Lewis and Anne, two adolescents/young adults who are in transitional periods of their lives, especially when it comes to their relationships with their mothers. Lewis’s mom, Cat, runs an estate sales business, presenting and overseeing the liquidation of property left behind by others. Danica, Anne’s mother, is a nurse in an assisted living center, but one who hoards the castaway items, any items, she finds around her. These maternal figures function as complements: one distributes while the other accumulates. And the same could be said of the mothers’ relationships with their significant others. Cat refuses to talk with Lewis about his father — casting off his presence, as it were — and Danica picks up (and takes in) AJ, a questionable and immature character whose presence unnerves Anne. There is also Fred, an antique dealer who greedily and competitavely acquires items for his antique shop, and whose past is inextricably linked to that of Lewis’s mother. With this relatively simple two-family premise, Ryan weaves the thematics that guide her entire narrative: coming of age, the inescapable past, our relationship with material things, and how our possessions — of things, of the past, of others, and of our own identities — are self defining.

The setting is the fictional town of Failin, Oregon, a once-thriving logging community, and as the name suggests, it’s a place where individuals aren’t quite able to escape their shortcomigs or to achieve their potential. This is especially the case with the older generation. Danica is a merciless hoarder, AJ is incapable of caring for his aged mother (yet another mother story) or of stablizing his own life, and both Cat and Fred are unable to come to terms with their shared past…which takes the form of Zach, Lewis’s absent BadHouses3father. In many ways, their lives are like the “bad houses” of the title. Lewis tells Anne on their first real tryst that for those who manage estate sales, bad houses are difficult to unload because everything about them is unseamly and in disarray.  There is the potential, here, for Ryan to overplay the “failing” part of her story and lapse into a cliché of small-town America. Yet she refuses to do so, instilling in her characters a complexity that is hard to pin down and whose lives are fundamentally open-ended.

Again, it is the relationship between Lewis and Anne that ultimately defines Bad Houses. As with the complementary roles of their mothers, each functions as a sort of mirror image of the other. He is unable to grasp his past — knowledge of his father is literally withheld from him — and she is borderline kleptomaniac, accumulating the possesions of others (like her hoarding mother), and an amature photographer, “taking” images around her. Yet, their relationship provides an in-between space, an opportunity for these different impulses to interact and intermix. But again, Ryan doesn’t settle for easy resolutions, letting the younger generation represent the way out with the answers to the adults’ problems. Curiously enough, Anne and Lewis choose to remain in Failin, and all it may represent, while an unlikely adult figure manages to escape.

Bad Houses is an ambitious and complex narrative, and one that deserves a wide audience. However, the book’s packaging would seem to work against this. Categorized as “juvenile fiction” on the back cover, and described in blurbs as “a coming-of-age tale” about love and trust, it presents itself as a text specifically for adolescents…which I hope doesn’t become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Of course this graphic novel will resonate with younger readers, but it can also engage much more sophisticated expectations. Ryan herself is a writer of young adult fiction, but Bad Houses doesn’t come across necessarily as a young adult title. With clean, representional art by Carla Speed McNeil — best known for her science fiction series Finder — the book appears more in the tradition of Howellsian realism. Maybe that descriptive is more grandiose than necessary, but Bad Houses does seem more than a mere book for teens. I completely missed the original solicitation of this graphic novel — perhaps due to the marketing parameters placed on it? — but I hope that others won’t suffer my initial oversight. It may not have made my year-end top ten, but it certainly is a book worth discovering.

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Check out Bad Houses and other works by Ryan and McNeil:

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