Bottled is the right word for this graphic novel by Chris Gooch, a young and accomplished member of a talented field of comics-makers coming out of Melbourne and debuting on the international stage. You don’t know what kind of book this is until quite a long way in, beyond its intimations of malaise and disaster, but it’s clear from the outset that it’s fizzing with dark juice – you feel like someone’s thrown it at you.
It opens with Jane, a youngish Australian graduate of a “generic arts degree” whose home is tense with the suggestion of her stepdad’s infidelities and, worse, her mother’s purposelessness and desperation. Jane and her drippy boyfriend, Ben, check out a sharehouse: weird people, but so far so good. Unfortunately, they need rent in advance and bond money.
Meanwhile, their friend Natalie is coming back from Tokyo as a successful model – she self-describes as “not your average 22 year old”. Her friends love her, hate her, tolerate her, and miss hanging out. Her apparent prospects are a world away from theirs. As they go to parties, meet girls and guys, get drunk, feel close, feel stuck, feel separate, it all starts to look like a recipe for doom – but no matter how many disturbing images spread through the book by way of clues, you won’t be able to guess the specifics. This story is paced with breakneck turns, but the characters are ambiguous. It’s hard to tell how rashly they’ll act, or how brutally they’ll treat each other, but it’s also hard to tell how they’ll respond to that treatment. Everything is always on the edge of consequence.
Gooch’s style has some of the teenaged softness of American post-post-manga-influenced cartoonists, but the beats of the story owe more to 1990s cross-genre experiments. It recalls the shady everyday world of David Lapham’s Stray Bullets or the cool nocturnal dread of Charles Burns’s Black Hole. Time and again, Gooch opens a scene by showing the reader something with too little context, or too much, such as a crowded party, then pulling in or out and showing us exactly what we’re looking at, often with an unexpected emotional payoff – shifting focus and sympathy to a surprising choice of character, giving someone an interiority we didn’t know they had. Bottled is stark but never gritty, sometimes even dreamy – it means business, and goes about it with intelligence and flair. CR
IDW Publishing, 288pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 27, 2018 as "Chris Gooch, Bottled". Subscribe here.