Though it’s not as active now, the verbatim theatre movement of the early ’00s was more than an interesting hybrid of old and new media, it was one of the most effective styles of social commentary in art. Works like The Laramie Project functioned as rawer, more direct confrontations of the issues plays like Angels in America also dealt with, packing the added punch of real world material. Dave Tomaine and Gustavo Magalhaes’ Boys and Girls in America isn’t based on a specific real world incident, but it utilizes the talking head framing of documentaries and the reenactment interludes of verbatim theatre, creating a unique comic that is far more engaging than your standard slice-of-life graphic novel.
Illustrated by Magalhaes in a loose, fluid fashion, Boys and Girls in America has a striking intimacy to it that allows it to be warm and open, which is especially valuable given its focus on our awkwardness around talking about sex. Focused on Avery, a young film student who is not making a “sex documentary,” but instead curating her friends’ experiences with hooking up, the comic alternates between a behind-the-lens view of Avery’s interviews and her behind the scenes interactions. Opening with Avery’s admission that “if I ever found love, I’d probably try to fuck it,” Boys and Girls in America is as much about Avery’s internal exploration as it is the experiences she is cataloging.
The comic’s creative team effectively juxtapose the “reality” of Avery’s documentary footage with less realistically rendered segments of Avery talking to her friends without the intrusion of a camera. These are primarily separated by Carolina Maia’s colors, as they shift from full palettes in the documentary sequences to flat, single color palettes in the “reenactments” of real events. The entire comic adheres to a mostly red, blue and easter green palette, with the red and blue coming from the recording light of the camera and the blue background Avery puts her subjects in front of. The color choice centers the work, not unlike the similarly strict palette use of Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line or, to deviate from documentary references, the works of Wes Anderson.
Magalhaes also switches styles between these two worlds, giving the documentary scenes a fuller, deeper composition while the real interactions are scratchy and often deliberately unfilled, giving them the feeling of a recalled memory rather than the exactness of a video or photograph. It’s fitting that the real interactions are also where Avery discusses what she is trying to learn through her documentary, and what real experiences have shaped her direction of it. A scene where Avery decides to question her mother about the dissolution of her marriage is one of the most remarkable in the issue, because Avery initially tells her mother the question is for her documentary, but at no point does it switch to the camera perspective. Avery’s insistent claims that she is not making a sex documentary morph into a larger question about motivations in this sequence, and though it’s not filmed for the documentary, you’re given the sense that it is still for the documentary because it clarifies Avery’s exploration of the subject of hook ups as an attempt to better understand how attraction– and by extension, love– functions, survives and falters.
Boys and Girls in America is a slight work at 23 pages but it’s startlingly effective at sustaining a mood of emotional and intellectual curiosity. There are an increasing number of autobio, memoir and journalistic comics in the medium but the bulk of them struggle to succeed the way Boys and Girls in America does with the development of its characters, especially in such a short, confined space. The verbatim theatre trick of working in the interviews as part of the narrative isn’t the only reason why Boys and Girls in America clicks so well, but it is a big part of why the comic is so memorable and engaging, allowing it to be visually unique and informative in an especially efficient manner. By its conclusion, neither Avery nor the audience have any better understanding of how to navigate attraction and love, but they do have a better comprehension of how relationships, like art, are more likely to survive the more you struggle for and through them.
Boys and Girls in America comes out next month through Cavedomain.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover