I’ve never understood why slice-of-life comics rarely find a large audience. Readers can enjoy seeing the same Batman story told for the billionth time, but a narrative about genuine, everyday experiences fade into obscurity. I’m not completely naïve. I know that most comic readers love superheroes – I’m guilty of this myself. Being a rich guy that wears a costume and beats up the mentally ill is a fantasy. Clearing out the possessions of a deceased spouse is real, and if you’re looking for an escape it isn’t the type of story that offers respite from reality. But more often than not, the richest and most rewarding stories are found in these slice-of-life tales, such as Joey Esposito and Sean Von Gorman’s Pawn Shop.
If the name Joey Esposito is familiar to you, it’s because you received much of your comic news content from IGN Comics 8 or so years ago. Or, you were an avid listener of the amazing Assemble After Dark podcast, for which I still haven’t found something that fills the hole it left behind (yes, they now have a Target podcast, and it’s great, but it’s not the same). Or, you read Captain Ultimate, which he co-wrote with his Assemble After Dark co-host Benjamin Baily for Monkeybrain Comics. The point is, Esposito had bounced around the comics industry in one way or another for quite a while.
Whether in his writing or in podcasts, Esposito’s words always carried authenticity that was refreshing in the cynical world of fandom. Whether it’s Taco Bell, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, or Jingle All the Way, Esposito has no problems defending passions which lesser beings may view as “guilty pleasures.” That same raw, emotional energy can be found over the course of Pawn Shop’s four chapters.
Sean Von Gorman, on the other hand, I had never heard of before. Sticking mostly to the indie scene, his works prior to and since Pawn Shop include Toe Tag Riot, The Secret Adventures of Houdini, and the recently announced Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Freshman Force: New Party Who Dis? by Devil’s Due. He’s also an escape artist, which may not be important in discussing this book, but it’s a fun fact. What is important is pointing out that he brings a water-color aesthetic to the book. No one would confuse his characters with that of J. Scott Campbell, and that’s a good thing. The characters within Pawn Shop reflect the real world. Most people aren’t supermodels, and a lot of them aren’t pretty looking. Von Gorman’s artwork is reflective of the world as it is, and the book is better for it.
Each chapter has a singular focus on one character, with a New York City pawn shop being the unlikely thread that ties their arcs together. The story begins with a widow who frequently wanders the city. It is a portrait of love that rarely gets told. Young romance and the events that bring a couple together are easy catalysts for drama. It is not often that the love of an elderly widow is explored. Even the most prominent example, Pixar’s Up, is more concerned with hijinks and shenanigans, which is understandable given that is a family-friendly movie.
As we follow Harold, the protagonist of this chapter, we see him visit his old coffee shop, then take a daily tour down memory lane, seeing numerous places that had significance to him and his wife. Each moment oozes with sentiment, daring the reader to feel nothing. And if you don’t feel something from Harold’s story, do not fret. Pawn Shop has enough variety in its characters and stories that readers will inevitably feel something. Perhaps it is overcoming addition or feeling burdened by the need to care for a loved one. Somehow, some way, Esposito and Von Gorman will tug at your heartstrings through a near-perfect marriage of writing and artwork.
Pawn Shop is not a groundbreaking graphic novel. It doesn’t subvert expectations or redefine a genre. However, it does tell a story, and it executes that storytelling better than nearly every other comic I’ve read. It juggles multiple narratives in a nonlinear manner with grace. It has stakes that are relatable and real, which therefore make them impactful. It is beautifully written, wonderfully illustrated, and my favorite graphic novel.