Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #15 by Drew Barth
For this blog, I’ve mainly focused on the serialized comics since I’m in A Comic Shop every Wednesday. But graphic novels are a bit different. Their releases are scheduled like books, typically on Tuesdays or Fridays, and are new, original works that have not been previously serialized. And that brings me to a graphic novel that is coming out on April 19thfrom Uncivilized Books: Cannonball by Kelsey Wroten.
You may recognize Wroten’s work from The New Yorker, The New York Times, or her Instagram. But with Cannonball, we’re getting her first long-form graphic work and already it’s one of the strongest graphic novels out this year. It’s top five for me, and it’s only March.
Basics: Cannonball is about Caroline Bertram, a recent art school graduate, queer, and a “self-proclaimed tortured genius” who rips up her thesis novel to use as cat litter for a stray she picks up outside her first apartment. Caroline and her best friend, Penelope, struggle to become adults with bills, rent, jobs, and the ever-encroaching sense of dread that comes with being a newly-minted adult. Throughout Cannonball, we see Caroline dealing with failure—personal and artistic—that permeates her new adult life. And although she draws some strength from a professional wrestler, the titular Cannonball, these feelings never truly leave.
Cannonball is a graphic novel about the crushing loneliness that follows us throughout our lives. From the first to the last panel, we see Caroline alone. Even if in both of these panels she’s either in bed with someone else or at a party celebrating her achievements, she is emotionally alone in both situations. Caroline goes forward with herself, slips backwards, picks herself up, stumbles again, continues to stumble, and stumbles into success. But her success never feels forced or cheapened. Through a constant struggle, she earns every achievement she receives, and yet is never satisfied or cured by these successes.
A great moment happens toward the end of the book where Caroline talks about not being able to get a story published in the same zines she’d had stories in after getting her own book. Caroline’s art has touched people in ways she hadn’t imagined, but because she didn’t imagine her work having that impact, such success is alienating.
What Wroten works with marvelously throughout Cannonball is this existential idea of identity. Midway through the book, Caroline has an argument with her father about being an adult, about her “lifestyle” and what she plans to do with her life. It’s the kind of argument that is familiar and devastating in equal measure. Wroten’s art only heightens this tense moment with stark backgrounds, darkened panels, and onomatopoeia that floats around Caroline’s father like nagging insects.
Her father’s words physically float and haunt Caroline even after she leaves the argument, and we can’t help but feel the bile and bitterness as though we just had the argument ourselves. But it brings up questions that the rest of the book hinges on: who is Caroline going to be and what does she even want to be?
She has a constant struggle throughout to answer that question.
With Cannonball, Wroten provides us with a staggering work that can act as a guide for creating a near perfect graphic novel. From its pitch-perfect art to a story that feels familiar and achievable to Caroline’s character living and breathing in a way that is perfectly flawed and human, Cannonball is a wondrous achievement in graphic storytelling. There are so many small moments and instances throughout the book that it’s hard to talk about all of the in the scope of one article, but I do hope all of what’s written above gets you just as excited for Cannonball as I am for it.
Get excited. The best stories are happening.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.