I recently read the graphic novel entitled, Bad Houses written by Sara Ryan and illustrated by Carla Speed McNeil. This story caught my eye because it concerns the concept of estates sales as well as holding onto memorabilia because of past memories. As my grandparents are aging they often ask if someone is interested in having something of theirs for memory’s sake or because we like the item. However, this story by Ryan goes a lot deeper than gathering a treasured something from a relative. The items for sale from estates or those being held onto actually seem to represent frustrations of life that are being experienced by those associated with those belongings. The graphic novel is set in an old logging town in Oregon that once was prosperous but is now failing because the past industries are also failing. Many of the town’s citizens are out of work or have a hard time making ends meet. The story involves mainly two families, Catherine (“Cat”) and her teenage son Lewis and Danica and her daughter, Anne. Cat and Lewis make a living by setting up and running estate sales. Lewis’s father does not even know he exists because Cat never told him that she was pregnant as a teenager. Lewis’s dad left town to look for work long before Lewis was even born. Danica is a nurse working in the town’s nursing home. Her daughter, Anne a teenager, knows her father however he died while she was a young girl. Danica unlike Cat who organizes belongings to get rid of them in an estate sale, hordes things in her home. It seems that Danica can’t let go of the past, holding onto a life she once had before Anne’s father past away. Cat, however, spends her time getting rid of the past by selling items as if she wants to let go and forget about Lewis’s father. Lewis and Anne meet while at an estate sale. They soon develop a friendship and share their problems. Soon they begin to date and eventually move in together in a clean apartment, looking like they both will have fresh start living in a good house.
The illustrations and imagery created by Carla Speed McNeil for Bad Houses is appropriate for the story. McNeil’s black and white ink illustration style helps to set the tone and mood, by portraying the townspeople’s’ struggles and bitterness towards their “crumbling” town. Through the use of line, point and plane element designs McNeil’s graphics are often straight-line images with horizontal and vertical lines. Using very few curving lines, which seem to reveal happier images, such as flowers, McNeil’s graphics depict images such as falling raindrops or straight lines for mouths rather than smiles, setting a sad tone. Additionally, the use of black shadings or black plane spaces within rooms of the buildings creates a negative space, further setting the tone of sadness and despair. On page 10, these straight-line elements of raindrops and Lewis’s frowned mouth as he looks for antique bottles to sell sets the sad tone early on in the graphic novel.
On page 35, the local employed and unemployed people meet at a local private club to drink and discuss their problems. Here AJ is thinking about his mother in the nursing home that recently flooded. The background spaces of the rooms are filled with black shadings or a black plane as seen on the lower right frame, reflecting the negative moods of the AJ and his friend as they discuss everything that is old – pipes, plaster and people, which reveals a “crumbling” town and sickly people.
Additionally, McNeil often uses textured lines to help the reader’s eye move across the entire page to understand the storyline. Also McNeil makes use of scaling throughout the graphic novel to place importance on points that help tell the story. The use of both texture and scaling is seen on page 30, at right as the history of Failin, Oregon is told. Once an important business in Failin, was the Faithful Angus Brewery. As seen on the lower left, a bottle of Angus beer is large and out of scale as compared to the smaller proper-scaled bottles in the brewer’s hand. By making the beer bottle on the left large it stands out and tells the reader how important this business once was to the community. It is given a sense of hierarchy amongst the other businesses. Lastly, lines give texture to the dog and tree stump in the center of the page with close black lines, in contrast to the short lines of pine needles separated on the pine branches in the upper right, making the eye move vertically up and down. As a result, as seen often throughout the novel, the textured lines used by McNeil create eye movement to help the reader become involved with the story being told. Also as seen on page 30,
McNeil uses frame within a frame technique often by telling additional story points as seen with notes, such as in the upper left hand corner with a frame note about Failin’s founding placed within a picture of a city block. McNeil’s illustration style sets the tone of the story as well as making the reader become involved with the storyline through her graphic designs.
Sara Ryan’s graphic novel, Bad Houses (Dark Horse Books, 2013).