Chiaroscuro: Patchwork Book 1 hardcover graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Troy Little
Publisher: IDW Publishing/Meanwhile Studios
Price: $24.99 US
When it was announced that IDW would publish Troy Little’s slightly surreal, slice-of-life comic, I was surprised but also elated. As someone who got on the Chiaroscuro train early on, I was eager to revisit the characters and story and to see how it progressed beyond the few individual episodes Little had self-published in the past. It had been quite some time since I delved into this odd story of urban ennui and angst, and everything felt new again as I thumbed through the pages. Little’s storytelling boasts a universal appeal, even in light of the eerie, tense moments in the plot. It’s easy for one to relate to the self-destructive protagonist’s frustration and depression. We’ve all experienced that horrendous mood when one wants to collapse in on oneself and hide from the world. The most interesting and challenging aspect of the story stems from the conflict, and it’s an internal one. The hero of the story is also the villain. Steven Patch is his own worst enemy, and while he’s not always the most likeable character, he is one with which the reader can empathize and identify. Little’s cartoony artwork exhibits a variety of eclectic influences, and while there’s an exaggerated tone to his figures, it’ his adept use of shadow and dead space that firmly establishes a strong, mature tone and an often palpably tense atmosphere as well.
Steven Patch is an unemployed artist who’s waiting for inspiration to come, not to mention the recognition and support he so desperately craves. Living alone in an abandoned apartment, he laments his lot in life and resents the rest of the world for continuing on with life as though all is well. He endeavors to limit his contact with the outside world to a small circle of friends, who in turn try to drag him into the comfort and familiarity of the everyday, with limited success. A chance encounter with a former art-school classmate brings annoyance but possible opportunity, while his seemingly abandoned home attracts the attention of some tough, mysterious characters.
Little’s visual style is pleasing to the eye, and at first glance, it’s due to the cartoony, accessible designs for the characters. But there’s much more to his art than that. Sometimes, he incorporates surprisingly vivid detail, and plays with perspective and points of view to great effect as well. His art seems clearly influenced by that of Todd (Spawn) McFarlane, but there are elements of cartooning in his work that put one in mind of the talents of Bill (Calvin & Hobbes) Watterson. What’s most striking about the artwork is the dominant darkness throughout the book. Little deftly employs shadow not only to set sullen or tense moods, but to symbolize how Steven Patch is being swallowed by his emotions and surreal plight.
Though darker emotions are the norm throughout this book, Little is careful to bring some balance to the storytelling. There’s a strong sense of humor at play, and the scenes featuring Steven with his friends temper his sour side significantly. There’s something of a Kevin (Clerks) Smith quality to the banter, and there’s a down-to-earth quality to the dialogue that counters the oddities in the plot.
Steven’s life in the story is something of a pity party. He’s miserable and he’s suffering, agonizing over the fact that he’s an artist with no art. But Steven suffers mainly because he chooses to do so. He’s really something of a child. He wants no real responsibility, nor does he want to take any responsibility for his life. He laments that nothing is happening for him (mainly because he does nothing to make things happen), but the last thing he wants is any real opportunity that might force him to take on anything other than the minimal existence with which he’s grown comfortable.
The main focus of the plot is the fact that Steven Patch doesn’t know who he is or what he wants, and that manifests itself as a loathing for those who do. He disguises it as a disdain for the establishment and conventional Western culture and customs. But Little’s script takes Patch’s identity crisis even further, suggesting that the character not only doesn’t know himself figuratively, but literally as well. He lives in a limbo building, squatting in a seemingly abandoned apartment, where mail arrives regularly for a Brian Miller. Patch assumes Miller to be the previous tenant, but Little clearly indicates there’s more to the Miller identity than the protagonist realizes. Even the main character’s surname — Patch — belies the notion that the persona has been woven into or over someone else’s life. “Brian Miller” sounds more credible than “Steven Patch.”
There are no answers forthcoming in this first volume, but Little definitely lures the reader further into the melancholy, miserable world of Chiaroscuro, using that mystery as a strong and effective lure. I sincerely hope it won’t be long before Little continues this opus. 10/10