Review time! with ‘The Strange Ones’

“Faces look ugly when you’re alone”

Jeremy Jusay has been working on The Strange Ones since 1994 or so, and he finally finished it and got it all published, so that’s all right. It comes to us from the fine folk at Gallery 13, which is part of Simon and Schuster. Let’s take a look at it!

The Strange Ones was begun, as I noted, around 1993/1994, so it’s not surprising it begins in the summer of 1993 and runs through the autumn and into early 1994. It’s very much set in that time – it begins at a Belly concert, which is quite possibly the most 1993 thing it could have begun at – but Jusay is too good a storyteller to let it be a Nineties relic. Perhaps the most incongruous thing about it is the title – neither Anjeline nor Franck, the protagonists, are really all that strange. They’re not typically normal late teens, of course, but they’re just living their lives, and while a few people comment on their strangeness, it seems like it’s mostly Anjeline – she’s the narrator – yearning to be considered strange. Or maybe I just knew a lot of strange people growing up, so they don’t seem all that bizarre to me.

The story itself is not terribly strange. It’s a non-sexual love story, and it’s really well done. At said Belly concert, Anjeline notices Franck, and then they happen to take the same route home to Staten Island (another irony from the title, as Staten Island has to be the least strange of New York’s boroughs). A few months later, they run into each other again, and they begin their somewhat odd friendship. It’s odd only because Franck doesn’t really interact well with people, so he always seems a bit aloof, even though, we find out, he’s really not. He’s just not terribly gregarious, so early on, Anjeline does a lot of the heavy lifting in the relationship. Franck says odd things like how he always asks for haddock at restaurants, and Anjeline seems more grounded. She tries to find out things about his past, especially when he mentions a woman’s name but won’t say anything about her, but Franck is generally non-committal. Anjeline is not telling him something about her past, too, and Jusay does a very nice job not pushing either story forward, but allowing things to unfold painfully slowly (not in a boring way, but in a way that makes us anticipate the answers we hope we’ll get). The fascinating thing about Franck is that, because he’s not the point-of-view character, we think he’s opaque, and he is to an extent, but it’s mostly that he says what he thinks, but not more than that. He’s a fundamentally decent person, but he’s also guarded because of his past, which, as it turns out, is not quite what he says it is. He’s complex, and while we read about him wanting him to open up to Anjeline more, the brilliance of the character is that he opens up as much as he does. Anjeline is guarded in a different way, and we know more about her because she’s the narrator, and so she’s processing her feelings a bit more with us watching. About halfway through the book, there’s a traumatic event that affects both of them deeply, and we get to know a bit more about why Anjeline is so upset by it and what she hasn’t been telling Franck. We also learn more about him, and why he’s the way he is. It’s very well done.

This isn’t a book where a lot “happens.” Anjeline and Franck do stuff together, and the vignettes are charming, occasionally weird, a bit haunting in retrospect, funny at times, and the way a friendship is built. Neither character is really a damaged individual, which is refreshing, but Jusay shows that they’ve been bruised by life a bit, and each needs the other to get out of their funk. Franck needs Anjeline because he needs a “normal” relationship with someone of the opposite sex, while Anjeline needs Franck to drag her out of a self-imposed box she’s in. Jusay writes them both as real characters, not ones that always say the perfect thing at the perfect time or exposit when we need them to. Franck, as I noted, seems aloof, but he’s always paying attention to things. When they’re together, Jusay creates small moments that seem to have nothing to do with a main narrative (such as it is) but where we see what kind of people they both are. They see the world differently, and Jusay slowly allows us to see the way each of them does, why they do, and what that means. There is tragedy in the book, but the book itself is not a tragedy. Jusay even subtly makes a comment about the army jacket with the name tag that reads “B. Pilgrim” that Anjeline always wears – the book does not turn into science fiction by any means, but there’s a small link to the way Vonnegut tells his story. Just like that novel wasn’t a tragedy even though it has tragic elements, so does The Strange Ones work to show how tragedy is tempered by so many other things, and how we have to appreciate those things instead of allowing the tragedies to overwhelm us.

Jusay’s art is not flashy, but it works very well for the story. There is a very good “lived-in” feel to the art, as Jusay is obviously intimately knowledgeable about New York, so there’s a very good sense of the city, from Staten Island’s suburbanity to the Cloisters, where Anjeline and Franck spend a contemplative day. His hatching and stippling is amazing, as he adds texture and nuance to almost every panel, not by shading, which is the trend these days, but by using more lines to suggest different fabrics, different hair, and different surfaces. He gives us details about the spaces in which these characters live that helps reveal more of their inner lives, and he uses spot blacks well to create good contrast, especially when he wants to hint at the differences between the more clean-cut people in the book and the more bohemian Franck and Anjeline. The way he hoods Franck’s eyes, which he does constantly, adds a layer of mystery to the character without being too obvious, and it makes the one panel where we see his eyes clearly that much more powerful. There’s also a very funny sight gag running throughout the book which becomes oddly literal at one point, which is kind of weird. But that’s not important right now! Jusay puts a lot of care into making the book visually interesting, and the fact that he seems to luxuriate in some of the details makes us slow down and appreciate them a bit more, which slows the entire book down and lets us appreciate Franck’s and Anjeline’s friendship even more. It’s a nifty trick.

The Strange Ones is an excellent comic that shows us a beautifully realistic friendship, one that helps both friends become better people. It can be heart-wrenching, but it’s also hopeful and moving, as Jusay shows us two people who need a friend, whether they’re completely aware of that or not. It’s a very charming book. If you’re at all interested in it, check out the link below!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆

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