As we start into 2022, I’m still catching up with 2021. Shortly after Christmas every year, I start surfing the "Best Of" lists, and blindly purchase a dozen books that stand out as something worth reading. Sometimes I get blown away, sometimes disappointed, but generally if a book gets talked about in a few places, it’s at least an interesting read. That's how I picked this up.
Released on November 9, 2021, No One Else is Johnson’s second “adult” comic, after Night Fisher (2006) which was re-released last fall. In the interim, he did an award-winning kids book called Shark King, and has made his living doing illustrations and teaching. This is a guy who is making a comic because he loves them, as they are something that doesn’t pay his bills.
And this is a good book! I’d read Night Fisher, and though I liked it, I wasn’t blown away with it. It’s an amazingly well-drawn semi-autobiographical story about a self-absorbed high school student who doesn’t quite appreciate what a life he's lucked into. It was good though, good enough to make me want to read his new book.
In the decade between books, Johnson has increased his artistic sophistication substantially. Where Night Fisher owed a lot to David Mazzuchelli’s ink and storytelling style, No One Else takes that style and fuses it with a clean line style reminiscent of Adrian Tomine’s contemporary work, but also an attention of moment-to-moment details that brought some of Chris Ware’s work to mind. That’s a lofty trio of artists to compare Johnson to, but this is a creatively refined book.
The story is very loose, a series of scenes that creates a portrait of a family living in the same house, but on virtually different planets. In the opening pages, we’re introduced to a single mother raising her son and caring for an elderly parent. The parent dies, and the woman’s brother returns home to help take care of things. And there isn’t much more to the plot than that. It focuses on their day to day lives.
The mother attempts to keep her house in order while managing the stress and indignities of daily living; the tween son is emotionally out of it, more worried about his cat than registering what’s happening in his home; and the brother is self-absorbed, on the verge of understanding that he hasn’t done much with his life, but still much more comfortable pointing fingers at others than at himself. The three, especially the two adults, are sharply characterized. I was surprised how quickly Johnson was able to give them life through the most innocuous of conversation.
I picked the book up to read before bed, and expected to read a few dozen pages, but ended up reading it in a sitting. The book is brisk: half of it is wordless. But it’s also engrossing. The situations the characters go through just ring true. The brother interacts with the son as an uncle: congenial, but also willing to make a comment at the mother’s expense without considering the possible impact. The mother interacts with the son as a mother: tiredly. And the son is oblivious to anything going on with the adults, because it simply isn’t interesting to him.
The art is stunning. Johnson’s line work is minimalist, but he also renders shadows confidently. The result are page after page of bold, clear images. He fluctuates between sequences showing the passage of time from a fixed perspective, and scenes showing a collage of images. He largely maintains a six-panel grid, but also punctuates scenes with full page panels. The result is a rhythmic comic that asks you to read just a little more. Time zooms in for a scene of moments and then zooms out again for a larger scale. It's the epitome of a "show, don't tell" story telling method.
The book is printed in navy ink, and uses a blue tone as a grey, and it’s all soft on the eyes. Basically, it’s a very pleasant book to look at. Johnson sparsely uses a neon orange on some pages too, which creates an intense contrast against the navy. It’s daring, and reflects the style of someone who does illustration for a living. He knows how to make an image pop, even in a book that would be described as quiet.
No One Else isn’t necessarily a comic with mass appeal. It has more in common with an indie movie than most comics. But I think it will really connect with those who want something with refined storytelling. It has a polish and confidence that is unusual for most alternative comics. It’s like not much else on my comic shelf.
No One Else can be ordered from your Local Comic Shop or from online retailers.
Ian McMurray is a Canadian, now settled and working as an educator in Sapporo, Japan. Starting with Uncanny X-Men #200 in 1985, an unreasonable percentage of his income has gone toward purchasing the sequential arts. He is a lifelong comics proselytizer, yet is genre agnostic, and makes comics under the name Ian M.