By Patrick Driscoll
Jeremy Sorese has been a powerful presence in the independent comics scene since 2010, posting autobiographical comics and building a devoted following around his idiosyncratic, funny, deeply personal work. Sorese’s dynamic cartooning and sense of humor make his worlds feel lived in, real, and comfortable—if you can’t tell from the fawning, I’m sort of a fan. But even as someone familiar with Sorese’s work and strengths, I was still surprised by the beautiful depth and gravity of his debut graphic novel, Curveball.
Drawn entirely in shades of grey save for shocking instances of bright orange, the novel follows Avery, a young person still reeling from the wounds of a fractured relationship, as they navigate a future that seems both warmly nostalgic and pervaded by loneliness. Avery works on a luxury yacht in a future populated with comfort and convenience, where robot bartenders serve drinks and enormous luxury-liners cut through vast cold oceans.
As we follow Avery (something of a neurotic fusspot) and his friends, Sorese masterfully showcases his skills world-building. Sorese’s character designs remind me a lot of Al Hirschfield’s caricature work, with dynamic silhouettes and deeply charismatic expressions; each individual character in the background of a crowd scene is their own interesting person, their own little blip of story in the larger narrative. Sorese’s characters are tremendously likable, as is his ear for great, believably funny dialogue—the way he renders crowds is especially remarkable, with snips of dialogue “audible” as we move through retrofuturistic food courts and dog parks in the city.
My favorite comics tend to revolve around relationships and internal conflict, so I read a lot of stories with protagonists muddling through difficult concepts like ‘forgiveness’ and ‘closure.’ But a big flaw with many of those stories is that the author can often feel like lightening the mood too much might lead to tonal dissonance—like too much fun might detract from the “this is serious, guys” pall of Emotional Trouble they’re trying to evoke. This monastic tendency towards funlessness results in a crushing depressive spell of a story, with one long sustained note of melancholy populated by people we as readers neither root for nor enjoy. Characters mope around, adrift in their own individual depressive story-arcs, and exposit to one another what new sad thing happened today as they stare into the middle distance, having Feelings. Characters that are presumably friends for decades or more lay around, listening to their friends’ problems with something between bored empathy and depressive contempt.
But Sorese’s sense of humor and character dynamics, the way they interact (pinky swears with an almost totemic level of sincerity, running jokes between characters, groan-inducing puns) are all intimately, personally believable; they are fully-fleshed out people, supporting each other in a difficult, increasingly-distant world. Having characters who are friends with one another but never make each other laugh seems alien, uncanny, creepy—real relationships become matrices of connected memories, shared pain and decade-long running jokes, real genuine people who understand one another, who like each other, even (or especially) after they’ve had conflicts. Rather than detracting from the emotional gravity of the story, having characters who enjoy one another sometimes can make the serious parts even more of a gut-punch, making a reader care even more about the fate of the characters in question. Rather than passively watching the morose protagonist eventually get whatever catharsis they were after, you cheer with their successes and groan at their mistakes, you cringe at their embarrassments and gasp at their revelations. Long story short: relatability is important when you’re writing stories about characters and relationships. Sorese has a total mastery of the character, pacing, and depth of his world, often to the point where it lingers in your mind long after you’ve finished reading. If Curveball were Sorese’s tenth graphic novel, he would be an old master still on his game. But the fact that this is the young creator’s debut is an intimidatingly powerful achievement. Curveball is gorgeous, in both design and tone, but its deft handling of empathy, loss, and self-forgiveness is definitely where it shines.