Readers will likely be most familiar with cartoonist Will McPhail’s work from the pages of The New Yorker. And although IN, the bold new graphic novel from the artist, retains his familiar style for most of the in-panel art, there is the noteworthy addition of color, similar to that found in McPhail’s series of greeting cards. And while signature marks like exaggerated faces are rooted in the one-panel newspaper gag tradition on which he’s made his reputation, the added layer of extra-panel sequentiality in this latest work results in a graceful and painfully human narrative.
IN, at its core, is about an individual during a stage in their life frequently featured in media: the listless, hollow, and socially isolated twenty-something creative type. Nick is a 20-something cartoonist who feels isolated from others. But by deepening moments of small talk with others, he experiences their depths. These moments of connection happen as he begins a new relationship, an exploration of the other that gets powerfully visualized on the page. Nick remains the focal point, with the other characters being his supporting cast. Yet unlike many other caricatures of self-absorbed individuals, there is actual interiority to the parade of characters surrounding him—in fact, that’s the whole point. And it’s explored with the same imaginative interiority that previously fueled his self-absorption.
It’s here that IN is reminiscent of another work published in The New Yorker, James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In Thurber’s story, the daydreamer’s imagination, rendered as different pop genres, magics him away during moments of disconnect from others. In contrast, IN focuses on moments of connection and understanding, expanding upon the book’s routine black and white sequentiality. Some genre exploration is present as well, yet focused more on setting and tone than clearly representing the trappings of the genre.
One genre that does come through starkly in this subtle amalgamation is McPhail’s particular take on the one-panel gag. Large, borderless panels occasionally take up two-thirds of a page, depicting amusingly idiosyncratic descriptions of cafes. These are entertaining—engagingly rendered, and nicely implemented into the book’s larger sequentiality—but lacking the larger wonder of the book’s humanistic throughline, moments where Nick’s (and the reader’s) imagination is activated by true connection. By comparison, the panels detailing Nick’s cafe sojourns can end up seeming almost too prosaic, the ruminations of someone who spends far too much time in coffee shops. But while their superficiality might easily fade from memory, the mindscapes that IN explores are likely to haunt the reader with their mystery.
IN’s more explicit themes explore death, hospice care, inevitability, and isolation. But the way it examines how the self is rooted in others might grip readers the most. Though it’s about the excavation, and meeting, of both our interiors and those of others, the book ultimately—inevitably, even—features a self-centered protagonist, around whom the narrative revolves, even as Nick comes to accept that his world doesn’t. Consider the almost magically supportive love interest, Wren, he meets while trying to be sad in a bar. From then on, her quirks seem to align with an unbelievable grasp of his needs and wants, more fitting to the fantastical sections of the book. However, it should be stressed that this self-centered narrative is not empty of meaning: The centralization of the self, in relation to our bonds with others, allows for a deft delineation of how the self is composed of others. IN accomplishes this task in a sharp, and often quite moving, way.