My Boyfriend Is a Bear original graphic novel
Writer: Pamela Ribon
Artist/Colors/Cover artist: Cat Farris
Letters: Saida Temofonte
Editors: Ari Yarwood & Charlie Chu
Publisher: Oni Press
Price: $19.99 US/$24.99 CAN
Some of the best comics I’ve been reading lately– be it Tom King’s Batman or Tee Franklin’s Bingo Love — have been romance comics. So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to me how compelling, thought-provoking and amusing My Boyfriend Is a Bear proved to be to me. It’s one of those rare projects that poses a challenge for critics such as myself in that it defies description. The publisher has labeled it as a romantic comedy, and while it certainly is funny at times, I think that label falls well short of conveying the unusual and intelligent qualities of this book. It’s really more of a romantic fable. Writer Pamela Ribon eschews cliched notions of couplehood and explores things from an extraordinary and truly different angle. She delves into comfort and kindness, into oddities and acceptance. I’ll be honest — I can’t say I fully understand the central message of this graphic novel. Maybe it’s not meant to be that clearly defined or understood. It’s undeniably entertaining and prompts its audience consider relationships, happiness and the potential that we settle to achieve social structures of the norm.
Quite by accident, Nora thinks she may have found the perfect boyfriend. He accepts her for who she is. He’s a great listener. He’s kind and he cares for her. And he’s warm and comforting. Also, he’s a bear — literally, like another species. As friends and family question her choices, doubt begins to creep into her mind just as nature and instinct are about to come between her and the bear.
Artist Cat Farris boasts an appropriately quirky, cartoony style that works well with Ribon’s unusual story. Her indy-flavored approach will appeal to fans of such graphic novelists as Faith Erin Hicks, but there are other influences apparent in the Farris’s art as well. Her depiction of the titular bear, for example, remind me of the work of cartoonist Andi Watson, whereas some of the more exaggerated reaction shots of the human characters evoke a comparison to the style of Rob Guillory. Furthermore, some more round-faced characters had me thinking of the style of animator Chris Sanders. Fortunately, that patchwork of influences seem to work well together here. Farris boasts an overall light style that’s appealing, but it nevertheless captures the more nuanced moments of emotion that are integral to the overall success of this storytelling endeavor.
As I first started unconventional graphic novel story, I expected that the writer was going to skirt the issue of sex, perhaps focusing solely on the emotional aspects of relationships. To my surprise, she didn’t shy away from the topic but neither did she dwell on it. Ultimately, the takeaway is that sex isn’t a foundational component of relationships — or at least of this particular one. There’s a vagueness about sex in the story that some might find frustrating, but I think Ribon successfully walks a fine line between acknowledging it and refusing to become bogged down in it.
The plot incorporates to key friend archetypes. Carly is the carefree soul who focuses solely on fun, never forming deeper attachments, but she’s really not a vital player in this drama. It’s the other friend, Debra, who acts as an antagonist in Nora’s quirky corner of the world. Debra is almost a cliched vision of the friend who sabotages those around her so as to build up her own codependent circle of misery. That characterization, combined with Nora’s parents passive-aggressive judgments, make it feel as though Ribon hasn’t instilled enough depth into the secondary cast of characters. But on the other hand, one can’t deny there’s a certain universal and true reflection of typical relationship dynamics at play here to which it is easy to relate.
By the end of the book, The impossibility of the titular premise is far from the reader’s mind. Instead, one is focused on Nora’s efforts make her relationship succeed. What’s striking about this fable is that it hinges on Nora’s choices, not some romantic notion of fate, soulmates or a Happily-Ever-After. Oddly enough, there’s actually nothing magical about Nora’s connection with the bear. They become partners, choosing both what’s best for each other and for themselves. Ribon’s story is ultimately an encouraging and hopeful one. Its playful and bizarre premise camouflages the deeper sense of introspection that drives the story. 9/10
Note: This graphic novel is slated for release April 17.