At first glance, Brainchild reads like a “chosen one” narrative, a hero’s journey starring Allison, a senior at the fictional Greene University. After sustaining a head injury as she’s moving into her apartment for her final year at college, it seems like Allison’s life is poised on the cusp of immense change in a way that’s familiar to a lot of YA reluctant saviors. Her roommate and longtime friend Carrie references Allison’s “ghost” when things start to move on their own, and Allison begins periodically seeing monsters.
But Brainchild quickly subverts expectations and turns toward a different kind of hero’s journey, one where Allison, Carrie, and a cast of unique and fascinating side characters are caught up in a mystery that goes deeper and further than any of them may have imagined. Allison really is seeing things, though it becomes clearer over time that her head injury was a trigger, rather than a root cause, of that. The people around her occasionally appear monstrous, though they are unaware of their new appendages, fur, or feathers. Allison can see all of this, though, and she struggles to act as if everything is normal when people begin to sprout tails and fangs. The worst part is that Allison has a creature shadowing her; not just a modified version of a real person but someone only she can see and interact with, and the thing is demanding her help. What unfolds is a story with plenty of potential bad guys and just as many possible answers for what’s happening to Allison—and what it has to do with her family’s past.
Creator Suzanne Geary has been regularly updating Brainchild on her website for years, and the whole thing is available to read for free. The story is so tightly told, and so interesting, that it’s easy to binge the archives to catch up, but Geary’s art makes it an absolute pleasure. Allison and her friends are snarky and sweet to each other in turn, dealing with all of the drama and shenanigans of college while our protagonist is quietly panicking, trying to get a handle on what is happening to her. Geary’s use of detailed backgrounds, interesting angles, and panel layouts give Brainchild kinetic energy to keep driving things forward even in quiet moments.
What’s even better is the physical comedy that Geary leverages with the characters—everything from slapstick to cartoonish facial expressions imbues the pages with personality and warmth. The monster designs are “misshapen escapees from the Jim Henson workshop…” (perfectly described as such by the creature trailing after Allison), and are delightful despite also clearly fraying her sanity. Even the creatures only seen in passing, as Allison runs to class or attends a party, are unique and fascinating, colorful, and even adorable while also being horrifying.
Fans of John Allison’s brand of quirky slice-of-life comics should definitely check out Brainchild: It’s the right mix of mysterious and funny, emotional and scary, and Geary’s skill has continued to grow over her years of working on it. As the comic progresses, readers are treated to a more complete and nuanced view of both Allison and her friends, getting to watch her grapple with standard college problems, mysterious new visions, and trauma from her past. It’s a queer Veronica Mars meets The X-Files with a diverse cast—and a killer sense of humor.