"It's an antidote to a life spent on the beat / That's the beat of concrete, the beat of machines / Of mobile phones and plasma screens / How much junk in my life do I really need?"
Bad Houses is a terrific comic, hampered only a little by Ryan's overly fussy narration, which comes, I think, from her novelist's instincts (this is her first graphic novel, and she's only written a few comics prior to this).
Some of the narration tells us things that we can clearly see from McNeil's art, which is always a bit of a problem when you have a writer who's used to describing everything in prose. But that certainly doesn't ruin the book in any way - it's just something that I noticed.
The book is set in Failin, Oregon, a fictional town that, from clues in the book, is not too far west of Portland. It's a small town where people are always crossing paths with the same people, which is part of the point. Ryan has a good hook for getting us into the book - one of the main characters, Lewis, works for his mother, who runs estate sales. This ties the rest of the characters together - Cat, Lewis's mom; Anne, a girl who enjoys taking pictures and who hooks up with Lewis in the course of the book; Danica, Anne's mother, who's a nurse at an assisted living center; AJ, a man Danica starts dating after she meets him when he drops his mother off at the assisted living center; and Fred, an antiques dealer who shows up at the estate sales looking for bargains. Ryan uses the settings as organic ways to get her characters together, and it works quite well.
Bad Houses is laden with obvious metaphors, but Ryan doesn't bash us over the head with them, so they remain grounded and even essential to the plot. Lewis explains to Anne that "bad houses" are places that he and his mother have to work on a lot to get ready for a sale - a place where a smoker or a hoarder lived, for instance.
Of course, Ryan makes the connection to the characters themselves being "bad houses," but again, because the metaphors rise from a solid foundation, it's not obnoxious. Ryan is commenting on the way we connect to objects, so that one person's junk is another person's treasure, and even if a person thought something was a treasure, they still die and leave it behind. She explores this idea in several different ways, showing how this connection to material goods affects everyone. Anne's reaction when Lewis mentions hoarders is pained because her mother is a hoarder. When she visits the estate sale early in the book, we don't know that yet, so her voyage through the house and her lingering over certain objects has a different meaning to us than it does to her. When we discover her mother's secret, her need to catalog everything in photographs, something she herself recognizes as a form of hoarding, becomes more clear, as does her need to find empty spaces. Cat, Lewis's mother, appears to suffer from mild OCD, which leads us back to her job - she sees the clutter that people build up over the years and therefore believes she needs to order everything in her life, including the life of her son. It's fascinating how effortlessly Ryan creates these characters, because the text and the subtext of their lives is so well established that she doesn't need to be more obvious about them. They live their lives, and we glean the meaning from their actions.
The fact that this takes place in a small town is crucial. Again, without being too explicit, there's a "sins of the fathers" thing going on in the book, as Lewis and Anne feel like they're going to repeat the same mistakes as their parents did.
Lewis doesn't know who his father is, and Cat won't discuss it with him. In one flashback, we learn that she and Fred were once friends, and it helps explain a little about why Fred loves antiques so much and also illuminates an earlier scene in his antiques shop. AJ, meanwhile, feels guilty about dropping his mother off at the assisted living center even though he knows it's the best thing for her. He's an immature person who believes he can take easy ways to financial freedom, and it's not surprising that he has some pent-up rage that comes out at the wrong time (thankfully, Ryan doesn't go a clichéd route and have him beat up Danica, because that would have ruined him as a character, and he's interesting if not all that noble). The fact that all of this takes place in a small town means that the cliché that the readers themselves brings to such a setting - that people are trapped there and will do anything to leave - help with Ryan's storytelling. Failin isn't really that bad a place - or at least not much worse than anyplace else - so even though people say they want to leave, the reader is programmed to impart more meaning to mild statements because of our notions about "small towns" in fiction. Lewis and Anne, for instance, seem slightly out of place in Failin, but they don't strive to leave, because they find something in town that's important to them. A character does leave, but not for the reasons we expect.
Bad Houses is also a wonderful love story, as Anne and Lewis try to figure out what they mean to each other. They have examples to draw from, as Danica starts dating AJ at almost the same time as they start their romance, and the two relationships move on parallel, if slightly dissimilar, tracks. Lewis also knows that Cat didn't have anything to do with his own father, so that colors his relationship a bit, as well.
What's wonderful about their romance is that Ryan is smart enough to show the insecurity of a new romance - especially from Anne's side - but also that issues in a relationship don't have to lead to recriminations or anger. Anne is terrified that people will find out about her mother, and this even colors the way she hangs out with Lewis's friends, because Ryan implies she's never been good with people, perhaps out of fear that they would eventually discover what her mother is. When Lewis speaks to her for the first time, she's found an old photo album in the estate sale and is looking through it, wistfully wondering what her life would be like if she had a "normal" family. And even when Lewis isn't sure what she's upset about, he doesn't push her too hard, accepting that she'll be able to open up to him in her own time. Ryan does a superb job showing two people in the early stages of love and how they are beginning to change their lives to accommodate the other.
There's a lot more going on in the book, which is one of the reasons why it's so good. I can't even get into all the small moments that make the story even better, so I'll write about McNeil's art instead. For as long as I've seen her art, McNeil has been excellent, and that doesn't change here.
She's so good at depicting things "realistically" - meaning her people look like people, and her settings are specific and detailed - that it's easy to overlook how good her storytelling is, but we shouldn't. Her character work is excellent; she makes it clear but not too obvious that the two mothers and their children are related - Danica and Anne have similar faces, as do Cat and Lewis. In the back of the book, she has some sketches of Anne and Lewis, and she writes that Anne's eyes are lower on her face, giving her more of a "baby face." This is something you don't necessarily notice explicitly, but when you see Anne and Lewis, it's obvious that Lewis is slightly older than Anne, and Anne is more unsure of herself as an adult (there's one page that shows Anne in school, presumably high school, and Lewis doesn't appear to go to school, but those are the only hints at their ages), even though Lewis is not fully formed either. McNeil does a fine job with every character, but her Anne is really luminous - she doesn't hide her emotions very well, so her face is always an open book. The scene where Lewis catches her looking at the photo album is tremendous, because Anne can barely control herself, and there's a scene where they actually have to "trash out" a hoarder's house that hits too close to home, and McNeil is wonderful at showing her horror and embarrassment. She has little nervous tics, too, that show as well as her words how uncomfortable she feels around people she considers "normal." McNeil does that with all the characters - they push their hair out of their faces, they curl their lips, they squint angrily - and it all becomes part of the tapestry of emotions in the book. She's very good at settings, too, which helps create the moods in the book. We get a true sense of what Anne feels when she goes home and why an abandoned warehouse would be like heaven to her - McNeil makes sure that the warehouse is almost empty, and she lights the space up so that it's almost glowing.
She contrasts the harder lines of her character work with more hatching and shading in the architecture and detritus of the town. The clarity of the characters is necessary to allow McNeil to show so much going on inside of them, and she sets them against a rich background of both darkness and light, creating a deeply detailed place for the story to play out. As I wrote up above, Ryan doesn't always allow McNeil to tell the story solely through her artwork, which I think is due to Ryan's prose background, but McNeil is certainly up to the task, and some judicious editing might have helped. (There's also what appears to be a fictional newspaper article quoted occasionally throughout the book. It gives us some good history of the town, but there's no indication of where it comes from or who wrote it. It's odd.)
Bad Houses could easily have been overbearing and obvious, but the fact that Ryan uses such obvious metaphors but doesn't draw too much attention to them allows us to dive into the book and enjoy the narrative even though we recognize the symbolism. It makes the comic a bit easier to parse than some stuff, but it doesn't make it bad by any means. Part of the reason why the metaphors aren't obnoxious is because Ryan's story (or interconnected stories) is very strong, and her characters are fascinating in their own right without being symbols of something else. McNeil's art has a lot to do with that, as well. Bad Houses is an excellent comic, and I encourage you to check it out.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆