‘Time to decide…Is finishing college and coming home the end of your life, or the start of it?’
Jane is a woman out of college doing a job she doesn’t care for. Heather is a woman who quit college and has no job to not care for. They’re both old friends, having grown up in the Spectrum, South Dakota. But they’re also individuals who drifted apart, especially as they went their separate ways for college. Now they connect once more, thanks to Heather’s strong personality and Jane’s inability to say no. And from there on, we head into a mysterious estate and then a secret fantasy world at night, thus the name.
It’s a fun setup; it’s the sort that has universal resonance and appeal baked into a fun comedic context and story — there’s a lot you can do with it. And the creative of John Allison, Christine Larsen, Sarah Stern and Jim Campbell certainly do a lot with it. Allison’s work with Giant Days is well known and beloved for good reason and that same sense of striking empathy is at the root of By Night. The characters feel real, they feel believable, as cartoonish as some bits are for the sake of humor and their universal struggles or little responsibilities strike a chord. They feel relatable, in all their excitement and downer moments.
Larsen’s work, coming off Adventure Time, is a solid fit for Allison’s sensibilities and she brings a delightful charm and range of expressiveness that is key to the book. Her cartooning talents really lend themselves to the sort of exaggerated yet believable framework the book operates in, where even the outlandish is played with for neat gags. From a small hug conveying awkwardness, surprise and more to fantastical flashbacks or sequences with vampires, she balances it all and grants them the appropriate weight they need to fit together into the puzzle that makes By Night. This works in conjunction with Stern’s colors, which help accentuate the sort of exuberance that is inherently present in a lot of the book, while also perfectly underscoring the moments that lean the other way, setting the tone for the book alongside the rest of the team.
The above page is a great example of the art team’s collaboration as they move through a variation of scenes and convey essential information in each panel effectively, helping build the scene, while also switching to much more simplified black, white and gray panels to flashback and illustrate a point. The work they do carefully eases the reader into Jane’s perspective and puts you right there with her, never disrupting the rhythm of the book and only adding to it. The comedic timing that makes so much of the book so laugh-out-loud funny and endearing also works precisely because the art team can do all that.
But working alongside them and Allison’s lovely script is Campbell, weaving through a wide array of balloon shapes, tail lengths, font sizes and colors to help sell every scene. No matter the moment, whether it’s a visual gag with vampires, a person pressing a lever or a character delivering the ultimate punchline to a joke, Campbell understands the charm of Allison’s words and the storytelling skill of Larsen and Stern and finds a spectacular point of balance for both. His ability to bring it all together is what helps make the comic.
But beyond the actual execution, what of the content? Jane and Heather investigate a mysterious estate that’s been a fixture of their childhood life, an estate that belonged to an enigmatic rich man who’s no more. And finding a device that opens up a portal to a fantastical world at night (it’s powered by the moon), what do they do? Go adventuring, perhaps? Fight some creatures, make some friends, acquire magic or cool mythical objects and more maybe? Not quite! Subverting such usual conventions that come with these stories and set-ups, the leads decide to make a documentary film about the world and the mysterious rich man whose story they do not yet know. And so you have two old friends, one an insecure lover of film terrified of eternally being nothing and the other a jobless ex-student with a lot of strong opinions and debt. Throw in Jane’s funny co-worker named Barney and Heather’s lovable father and you have a lovable cast and a film crew making a documentary in a fantasy world.
And a fun fantasy world it is, with secrets, werewolves, short green men, giant owls, mysterious shacks and even vampires! The creative team builds a world that at once feels fresh and familiar, packed with possibility and charm that one once felt watching cartoons as a kid or reading fun strips. But beyond all of that, at the heart of the story, there’s two people trying to find themselves and go some place where no one has, because they need to and if they don’t, who will? Coming back to things after your dreams don’t work out and feeling like a failure is okay, it’s not abnormal. But you can sulk in that feeling or go some place you never even expected, dreamed or hoped, because that’s life, isn’t it? Expecting the unexpected and living that which you’d never even considered, with people you’ve never expected you’d be with?
By Night is a charming, fun read boasting a great cast of characters that you love and want to be with. The exuberance that leaps off the pages is a joy to experience and it’s the sort of read that has you grinning on every page, because it revels in its premise, its characters and has you right with them as they experience things. Definitely a must grab for fans of great slice of life and comedy and just good comics in general. This is a book with heart.