It’s when one comes across a work as subtle and detailed and well-crafted as Bad Houses that one realizes how rare it is to see a true novel in graphic novel form.
In the small town of Failin, Oregon, Cat runs an estate sales business, responsible for disposing of the detritus of other people’s lives and homes, often after their death. Her son Lewis works with her, pricing objects for the dealers and collectors that snap up any leftover, eventually. Cat gains fastidious pleasure out of bringing order to other people’s chaos.
Anne is a photographer fascinated by artifacts, due in part to her mother’s unusual relationship with acquisition. Danica works at an old folks’ home and isn’t able to let go of anything. Anne and Lewis meet when she falls apart over an old photo album of someone else’s life.
Bad Houses is a meditation on possession, on why we acquire and what it does for and to us mentally, but also on recent economic struggles and what they’ve done to communities. The story raises thoughts about permanence and escape, about whether all our objects are valuable sources of memory or psychic anchors, weighing us down.
Sara Ryan‘s writing is deeply insightful, while words fail me when it comes to Carla Speed McNeil’s art. Her characters are so real, so beautifully portrayed in terms of the small gesture or expression. As needed for a story about where people live and work, there’s a strong sense of place and location, grounding the events.
I’m left thinking about identity and comfort and how our possessions determine who we are. It’s an astounding work of great depth with many unusual threads that tie together in surprising but perfect ways. I don’t want to spoil the surprises, so I won’t talk about the details of how the history of growing up in a small town inserts itself or the role of a small-town crook trying to scam his way out of having to work. It’s complex in creation, making the book all the more powerful and memorable.