Rick Watts is at a crossroads in his life. He’s recently taken a new job as a game designer in a new city, Seattle, and his long-distance girlfriend, Natalie, is joining him from her home in Pennsylvania. However, despite all the newness in his life, Rick just feels miserable:
Thirty-three demo reels and only one response. Two thousand miles in three days. One month in and it’s just as bad as Carnal Games. What the hell am I doing? Sad thing is, I don’t feel a damn thing and I know I should. All the sadness and anger (and love) just smolders inside me. I’d run away if I just had the energy and desire. But I don’t.
Rick just feels like an outsider in everything he does. He is ostracized from his coworkers, he has few friends in town, and he finds that he’s having troubles getting along with Natalie. To make matters worse, he starts having all kinds of bizarre injuries. His face doesn’t heal when he cuts himself shaving, he breaks a finger pressing his keyboard too hard, and he even loses an eyeball when fighting with Natalie.
In short, Rick is kind of an emotional mess, and we follow his story through this interesting and creative–if rather depressing–new graphic novel by Shane White, who delivers a book with a real emotional heft to it. There’s an affecting intensity to this graphic novel that’s quite unusual.
The protagonist goes through a genuine existential crisis–and, through his thoughtful page layouts and intelligent storytelling process, White is adept at helping the reader feel empathy for Rick. White’s achievement is noteworthy because, on the surface, it’s difficult to feel that much empathy for Rick. After all, he has a good job, a decent apartment, and a pretty girlfriend who was willing to travel all the way across the country to live with him. A lot of guys in their mid-20s would kill for a life like Rick’s.
However, a lot of guys in their mid-20s also go through existential crises, too. They’re unsure of their future career plans, unsure that the people they love are the people with whom they want to spend the rest of their lives, and unsure that the place they live is the place where they want to stay. All of these elements help the reader to feel a sense of empathy for Rick’s experiences regardless of how outlandish they become.
Shane White chooses an interesting art style for this piece. He demonstrated in his previous graphic novel, the wonderful North Country that he could draw in a wide variety of styles, but here chooses a stylized, almost manga-influenced character design with a very muted palette of black, white and orange. This stylistic choice gives the story an interesting sort of consistency.
The slightly distorted look of the characters adds to the intensity of Rick’s crisis–giving the reader both a feeling of distance and intimacy for the character. It’s distancing because the characters look so unrealistic, but it’s intimate because that cartoonish style allows White to exaggerate in a way that gives the reader empathy for the character.
Obviously Rick’s loss of body parts is symbolic of his dark journey through his soul, but that symbolism works nicely in the context of this very emotional story that comes to a very moving and satisfying conclusion. Things Undone may not be the most uplifting graphic novel of the year, but it’s a very thoughtful and creative book with a tremendously satisfying finish.