Arts & Culture » Book Review

In the graphic novel Beverly, a gesture's worth 1,000 words

Nick Drnaso's stories aren't as simple as they look.



Beverly, a graphic novel by Chicago cartoonist and illustrator Nick Drnaso, consists of six overlapping stories of suburban life. The bleak tales are told mainly from teenagers' perspectives. The characters, though shapeless and rarely expressive, are recognizable, and their situations are unenviable. The settings verge on the mundane: an after-school job, a house party, a pizza place, soccer practice, the playground where kids smoke. But in this world, the slightest aberration resounds like a shot.

Drnaso's drawing and writing style is deceptively simple—multiple readings of the same story reveal the purposefulness of each detail. The characters may appear blobby, but their body language is complex and profound. The dialogue precisely captures how teenagers are simultaneously bored with life and melodramatic in response to it. The most everyday encounter can turn sinister in an instant: a stranger on your walk home could be following you; a casual conversation at a party could reveal a dark secret.

The most interesting character in the stories is typically the one who talks the least. In "The Saddest Story Ever Told," a woman receives a screening copy of a new sitcom along with a survey to fill out after viewing it, and invites her teenage daughter, Cara, to watch with her. The mother throws herself into the assignment, proud of the responsibility given to her, taking notes during the show, and trying to rehash it with Cara before they even open the survey. Throughout the story, Cara never speaks—her reactions to her mother and to the sitcom are communicated only by slight changes in her facial expression. Yet these gestures convey multitudes: boredom, skepticism about her mother's enthusiasm, and a mixture of pity and embarrassment at how stoked her mother is about watching a terrible sitcom. The show they watch is called Somehow We Manage, which resembles much of what's on network television nowadays. The premise involves a multigenerational family's squabbles, which at the end of the episode are all resolved by luck and heartfelt speeches.

The characters in Somehow We Manage are the opposite of the disconnected, uncommunicative families in Beverly. "The Lil' King," for example, is about a disastrous family vacation that Cara, her younger brother Tyler, and their parents take to Cape Cod. Tyler, a sixth-grader, never speaks in this story—he imagines decapitating his fellow tourists, or pictures the models showcased on billboards having sex with each other. Drnaso's drawn panels depict these fantasies, while the dialogue concurrently follows Tyler's parents' ongoing vacation commentary—a text box reading "A lot of people out today" hovers above a pile of bloody corpses; "Brooke is already in high school?" floats over a pastor and a stripper naked and getting frisky against a cloudy backdrop.

The disparity between pictures and text is pronounced in several places. In "Grassy Knoll," a teenage boy, Tim, is paired with a chatty, weird coworker—but his focus, and that of the panels, is on a trio of girls nearby. Drnaso's characters frequently ignore the people trying to connect with them because they are too busy trying to attract the attention of someone else, who is most likely ignoring them. Tim dismisses his annoying coworker to get closer to the girls, who disregard him to pay attention to a different guy, who will go on to neglect his girlfriend's cries for help.

The book's last story, "King Me," shows a character who devotes many hours a week to going far out of his way for physical contact with a stranger who resembles his dead relative. He seeks out a semblance of intimacy that he'll never have again. It's an unspeakably sad undertaking, and yet somehow sweet. Drnaso's stories and characters, and perhaps his view of the world, are like that—difficult to watch, achingly realistic, and all too familiar.  v

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