By Maia Baum
Polwin asked her if she spoke English, and she said no, so then he looked at me with his panicked eyes, and I ended up spending fifteen minutes on the phone talking to this woman in Dutch, translating what was wrong with the internet and trying to understand how to fix it, Ellie told me.
So, did they fix it? I asked.
No. They have to break down a wall because something went wrong with the cables.
Break down the wall? Oh my god. Which wall?
Ellie hesitated before answering, then laughed.
I’m pretty sure it’s Polwin’s room, sorry, that’s where the internet cables are.
About a year ago, Polwin told me about the internet’s undersea cables. Was I asleep the day that this was explained in school? Maybe. Regardless, as a twenty-three-year-old, it was embarrassing to admit I didn’t actually know how the internet worked. With his ADHD-induced enthusiasm for all things surrounding technology, and my ADHD-induced lack of focus for all things surrounding technology, it was difficult to fully grasp this crash course in internet cables (the term ‘glass fibre optic cable’ was used frequently).
The one thing I did understand, however, was that there were two distinct results from this serious case of broken internet in the apartment. One, in the hours of the day in which we didn’t have to work or study, we’d have to find other ways to entertain ourselves, such as talking to each other. Two, in the hours of the day in which we did have to work or study, we’d spend our time in various hipster cafés around the corner, in our gentrified neighbourhood, sipping oat milk cappuccinos, procrastinating on our work, and having awkward interactions with the waiters.
This is how I found myself at one of the many cafés in the neighbourhood, sat down, ordered an oat milk cappuccino, and opened my book. “Here in the present day, I need a good bar to be sad in” (9), I read, in Will McPhail’s In: A Graphic Novel, and thought about my own position in this coffee shop. I pondered the notion of being alone in a crowded place, such as the café I was finding myself in, and realised I felt both lonely and calm. McPhail’s single panel centred around him walking into the “Your Friends Have Kids Bar: Weaponised Self-Awareness and Cocktails” (9) and I quietly laughed to myself, knowing this book would be filled with more self-deprecating, witty remarks about himself, and indirectly, about myself.
As McPhail’s protagonist, Nick, comes across a different bar to be sad in, the panel shows “graham’s bar” (11) in a font that feels completely out of place from the regular cartoon style text blocks I’d encountered in In so far, with Nick’s thoughts reading, “I need a… Holy shit is that Helvetica?” (McPhail 11). I get out my phone and snap a quick picture of the page and send it to Polwin, knowing he’ll appreciate any reference to typography in mainstream media or culture, being a self-proclaimed typography connoisseur. In this bar, Nick meets his very own Manic Pixie Dream Girl, named Wren, slowly offsetting the decline in my enthusiasm for this book.
In follows Nick, a young illustrator, who feels disconnected from other people. His days are filled with meaningless conversations, and his interactions with others are all built on performativity, rather than what he experiences as true, human connection. But then, he meets Wren (whose sole purpose appears to be carrying Nick’s character arc), and his entire life changes. We’ve all heard that one before, haven’t we? I sigh, and keep reading, looking for more redeeming qualities to emerge from McPhail’s work.
As Nick wanders in and out of coffee shops, in search of some deeper meaning to life, or perhaps just to pass the time, McPhail manages to successfully deliver “A Small Sampling of Cafés.” This, again, reflects his talent for using his self-awareness for the greater good of laughter. Looking at the name of the café that I’m sitting at, “Coffee Room” seems exceptionally plain and unoriginal, compared to McPhail’s selection of coffee shops, such as “Gentrificchiato” (34), “Exhausted Corduroy Coffee” (47), and “Soft Boy Beanery” (56). Characterisation of said cafés include but are not limited to endless varieties of milks, Timothée Chalamet lookalike managers, Wi-Fi passwords such as “EdisonBulbFilament” (McPhail 34) or “DialogueIsNotForExposition2007” (McPhail 36), and, of course, all will empty your bank account. After a quick Google search, I find out the jury is still out on whether McPhail’s “millennial joshing” (Smart) is reflective of his “acerbic and clever cartooning” (Quaintance), or whether “the story loses focus with observational bits about pretentious coffee shops and corporate jargon” (Kirkus) – although personally, I find his jokes pretty funny. My thoughts are interrupted by Ellie walking into Coffee Room, ordering an oat milk cappuccino, and sitting down opposite me. She gets out her book and starts reading Beautiful World, Where Are You. I guess you could say Sally Rooney’s new novel is also a book about human connection.
My mind drifts back to McPhail’s love story between Nick and Wren, as I reach the scene in which their first date, and subsequent one-night stand, takes place. The page displays two square panels with Nick and Wren awkwardly standing next to each other, seemingly taking a deep breath in anticipation of what is about to happen, with a third, larger, rectangular panel underneath, reading “Showtime” (McPhail 48). What follows is an incredible sequence set on a theatre stage with a table and two chairs, with the curtains slowly raising, making way for their date (McPhail 49). Their performance, illustrated in a twelve-panel, gutterless sequence is by far the highlight of McPhail’s work. Nick and Wren have a few drinks, pay the bill, romantically walk outside (jumping off a street lantern – perhaps hinting to a Singin’ in the Rain scene), take an Uber home, sit awkwardly on the sofa in the living room, take their clothes off (while Nick puts on a ridiculously large condom), and finally, have sex, until the stage goes dark, signalling the end of the dancelike showcase. Finally, the light goes on again, and they bow to the audience, upon which the curtain falls, and the scene has ended (McPhail 50). This scene perfectly illustrates Nick’s sense of performativity, as he is unable to fully connect with Wren. I think about the almost cinematic quality of McPhail’s sequence, as he plays with the size of panels, the lack of gutters, the framing, the lighting, and the focus on image rather than text, and I am reminded of why I love comics so much. Meanwhile, I glance over, and my eyes fall on the page Ellie is reading, “He put a finger inside her then and she exhaled. Good girl, he murmured” (Rooney 153). I laugh to myself, thinking about the sheer contrast between McPhail’s and Rooney’s version of a sex scene.
I turn my attention back towards the graphic novel, and notice the change in McPhail’s drawing style, “[breaking] from black-and-white to explore Nick’s inner life, rendering vast glaciers, strange beasts and deserted cityscapes in rich, surreal colour sequences” (Smart). The shift from his standard black-and-white images to these vivid colour images signify a breakthrough moment for Nick. Throughout In, Nick tries to have real, meaningful encounters with a range of people he comes across in his daily life – from hilariously awkward moments with Steve, the plumber, to realising his own mother is in fact also a person in her own right, namely, Hannah. While Nick is far from being perfect, as soon as he opens up (encouraged by Wren), his efforts are received with a warm welcome, that feels almost too easy. These moments of Nick fully being in the present are reflected in colour. While the colour sequences are undeniably beautiful with their filmic style, the narrative feels like it’s happening too fast. After a lifetime of disconnection, is meeting a smart, pretty girl really all it takes to suddenly feel connected to everyone and everything in your life?
As the book becomes darker, touching on themes of illness, death, and grief, McPhail’s use of silence is emphasised in its contrast between loud and quiet scenes. As Smart writes, “Many of his most moving panels are silent, holding the reader in the moment as emotions unravel.” For pages on end, McPhail tells a story without any words, and as I reach these scenes, I notice myself holding my breath, in anticipation of what’s to come. Smith also writes, In is “slowly paced, visually minimalistic, thoughtful and quietly sad,” pointing exactly to this disparity between painfully impactful images and the complete and utter silence that screams off the pages. As I near the end of the book, however, I can’t help but feel unsatisfied with the ending. “There is not enough depth to his characters to truly engage us. The story does turn heartbreaking but, ultimately, leaves us feeling that the narrative arc is thin” (Jacobs). There is so much more to explore still, while McPhail ends his book with a silence that could’ve been (or should’ve been) filled with so much more.
Wow, I suddenly hear Ellie saying. She lets out a sigh and flicks back through the pages, after having just finished Beautiful World, Where Are You.
Can I show you something? She asks me. I nod, as she passes me her book. I look at the page that’s open and read: “So of course in the midst of everything, the state of the world being what it is, humanity on the cusp of extinction, here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for?” (Rooney 138). I take a second to fully take it in. I wondered if I had been too critical of McPhail, protesting his creation of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the unrealistic ease in Nick’s character arc, and the mismatch of the black-and-white visuals with the colourful sequences. Sally Rooney was right. Sex, friendship, love, relationships – isn’t that what we all care about in the end? What we all live for? We’re all always searching for that connection, whether it’s with our friends, partners, families, plumbers, or the waiters in the cafés that we spend our days in.
While In isn’t a perfect literary work, McPhail’s woke, millennial, hipstery reflections on society are hilarious, and as his debut, he does an excellent job of exploring a “painfully human narrative” (Kejera), in all its flaws and shortcomings. The story is moving and gripping, and highlights McPhail’s exploration and challenge of how much can be said visually, rather than verbally. Ultimately, this really is a book about human connection. I look at my watch and see that it’s almost five-thirty, which means Polwin will be coming home from work soon. Ellie and I gather our things and make our way back to the apartment, preparing ourselves to spend the rest of the evening without internet, simply talking to each other about sex and friendship, and just for a little while, living completely in the moment.
Maia Baum completed her BA at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, with a research focus on visual metaphor in comics, while she worked as Managing Editor for Expanded Field, a journal for creative writing and image/text experimentation. She is currently in the MA programme Literature Today at Utrecht University.
- “Gorgeous navel-gazing.” Kirkus reviews, 17 Mar 2021. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/will-mcphail/in/. Accessed 11 Oct 2021.
- Jacobs, Rita D. “In: A Graphic Novel by Will McPhail.” World Literature Today, Summer 2021. https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2021/summer/graphic-novel-will-mcphail. Accessed 11 Oct 2021.
- Kejera, M. L. “IN is an acclaimed cartoonist’s fantastical exploration of the people all around us.” AV Club, 17 Jun. 2021. https://www.avclub.com/in-is-an-acclaimed-cartoonists- fantastical-exploration-1847095082. Accessed 11 Oct 2021.
- McPhail, Will. “A Small Sampling of Cafés.” New Yorker, 1 Jun 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/humor/daily-shouts/a-small-sampling-of-cafes. Accessed 11 Oct 2021.
- –. In: A Graphic Novel. Sceptre, 2021.
- Quaintance, Zack. “Graphic Novel Review: In by Will McPhail.” Comics Bookcase, 3 Jun 2021. https://www.comicsbookcase.com/reviews-archive/in-graphic-novel-will- mcphail. Accessed 11 Oct 2021.
- Rooney, Sally. Beautiful World, Where Are You. Faber & Faber, 2021.
- Smart, James. “In. by Will McPhail review – only connect.” The Guardian, 24 Jun 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jun/24/in-by-will-mcphail-review-only- connect. Accessed 11 Oct 2021.
- Smith, Lily Houston. “Freedom and Space: In Conversation with New Yorker Cartoonist Will McPhail.” Cleveland Review of Books, 22 Jul 2021.
- https://www.clereviewofbooks.com/home/will-mcphail-in-a-graphic-novel-interview. Accessed 11 Oct 2021.