Duh, Ha-Ha (2019)

Duh! Ha-Ha

Duh Ha-Ha is quick and lyrical. The nameless narrator sets up the ground situation in a page; she’s a listless early twenty-something who works in restaurant of some kind, probably not a chain. Her boss gives her a ride home and she thinks about what would happen if she his old bones. Would his gratitude outweigh his anger? Not a lot of time for the narrator to think about it because when they get to their destination, a staff party the boss is paying for (hence why I can’t believe it’s a chain), the younger guy next to her starts chatting her up.

And old boss man doesn’t like it, which convinces the now drunk narrator to come on strong to stranger guy, leading to a moderately big reveal—except creator Carolyn Nowak doesn’t want to tell the story of how that moderately big reveal affects anything. Instead, she moves on to the narrator just talking about her relationship with the guy, who becomes a (decent) boyfriend, which adds to the lyrical quality.

Nowak’s art is good, her sense of visual pacing is superb—the way she’s able to get past the expectation of a reveal exploration comes with a white text on black panel jump ahead, but also on the effectiveness of the postscript, where Ha-Ha becomes more about the narrator in the relationship than anything earlier had been about the narrator.

Nowak’s also a master of the abrupt ending. When the comic stops, you expect there to be more, but when there isn’t… the stop point makes all the more sense. It’s not groundbreaking, but for a twelve-page indie comic, there’s not much more you could ask for than Duh Ha-Ha.

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Nowak’s Girl Town

Girl Town is haunted. Far more than it is haunting. Creator Carolyn Nowak often cuts right before it gets haunting, instead its cast is haunted. Town collects five different stories. At least two of them deal with heartache. Two of them deal with nonspecific ache. One of them is potential literature but in the modern podcast, fandom era.

Nowak has some similar themes and visuals. She’s got this “roofs off” shot she does into houses. Sometimes it’s for establishing shots, sometimes it’s for scene. Usually it’s establishing shots. Theme-wise, things are often in a near future of some sort. The first story has space being colonized and attractive women left behind on Earth instead of getting to go into space. The third story—by far the longest one (sort of the “feature”)—is about a woman getting a sex robot who proves, just like the T-800, to be the only one who measures up (no, not that way). Those two stories, the futuristic realism ones, are the two heartache stories. The first one—the first story in the collection—ends with this really awesome, really weird move from Nowak where she changes things up at the last minute, staying truer to the character than reader expectation.

It helps set the tone for the rest of the book. Like the second story, which has an unexpected finish as well. It’s a little bit more magical realism than futuristic; there are some mundane fantastics in it, but no specific sci-fi tech. The second story is really good too. Town just keeps getting better until the sex robot feature; after it, the intensity of the read changes. The fourth story is that aforementioned potential literature one. It’s all about these two podcasters who get their hands on a copy of a rare vampire TV movie from the early nineties. It’s got a cult following, even though no one has seen it since it first aired. It works out to be a really nice, really assured story. Different from everything else, but a nice show of range.

Then the finale is an encore of the quiet devastation Nowak does earlier. The last story has no futurism, no magic. It’s just about sadness and memory. The characters are so layered—Nowak’s got these aching leads opposite powerful, confident love interests and friends—and the finish to the story just makes the whole book ache. Just like the first story’s ending reverberates through the rest of the read, the last reveal shoots it back to the front. Girl Town is a literal mood.

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