Written by Sara Ryan
Art by Carla Speed McNeil
I knew I wanted to read Bad Houses just on the strength of artist Carla Speed McNeil's involvement, but I was not prepared on any level for how good this book is.
Bad Houses is set in Failin, a small town in Oregon that has seen better days. It's main industry, the Faithful Angus Brewery has been closed for years, and young people seem to be in a hurry to get out. The story is centred around Cat's Matchless Estate Sales, which organizes and runs estate sales as the town's aging population dwindles.
Cat runs the business along with her son Lewis, who is just out of high school (I assume) and is learning the ropes. He meets Anne at one of the sales. She's an artsy high school student who feels very deeply the connection that people have to objects. Part of that comes from her mother, Danica, who is a hoarder. Danica meets AJ when he admits his mother to the old age home where she works, and they begin a relationship. The other important member of the book's cast is Fred, a grumpy antique shop owner, who has a connection to Cat and Lewis's absent father.
Writer Sara Ryan uses an interesting approach to telling this story, using a third person narrator who sometimes steps into the characters' heads to help explain their thinking, and at other times leaving the heavy lifting to McNeil. All of these characters are complex and very well-realized, and after reading through the book's hundred and fifty pages, I felt that I knew them so well I'd been reading about them for ages.
This book explores our relationships with stuff as well as with other people, and has a good understanding of just how much emotion, hope, and memory can be invested in the things that we own. It also looks at how hard it can be to share some of our most personal inner stuff with others.
McNeil is an incredible cartoonist, and it's nice to see her portray a more everyday world than the one she has created in her superb Finder graphic novels (which I cannot recommend strongly enough). I really wish that McNeil was more prolific, because her work is so strong.