In 2012, the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, an online passion project dedicated to naming neologisms for emotions and feelings yet unrecognized, coined the term “sonder.” Defined as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as complex and vivid as your own,” sonder encapsulates the very human experience of empathy and the struggle for sanity in the face of adversity. Elsa Charretier and Matt Fraction’s November thrives on the complex and vivid lives of its subjects, snapshotting their struggles and weaving them into a larger tale of corruption in an unforgiving world. With its characters trapped in this world with little to no personal agency, November delivers an unflinching glimpse into their lives and their demons lying just beneath the surface.
Focusing on three main characters, November tells its story in an incredibly interesting way. Rather than laying out its plot in a strict progression from A to B, the reader is given hints to the bigger picture as they go, forced to piece most of it together themselves. This style of non-linear progression is by no means groundbreaking, but it is incredibly well executed within the pages of November. The book demands to be reread, with each subsequent reading informing and shedding new light on the last.
The desperation of the story’s lead characters is palpable throughout the book. Tensions are high as their city is plunged into chaos, but that’s not entirely the cause of this desperation. Winter is well on its way, with November bringing the cold, damp grip of seasonal depression to everyone. The sun shines a little bit less, and the world becomes that little bit more on edge. For our point-of-view characters, this manifests as an unending sense of dread, unease, and self-destruction. As the world takes and takes from them, they spiral into their respective demons. For Dee, this means a deep manic depression that stems from a cryptic dark history of abuse. For Kowalski the emergency dispatcher it means not wanting to go home, forcing her to throw herself into work, thereby worsening the cycle. Finally, for the poor unnamed good Samaritan who found and reported a missing gun in an alley, this dread becomes a very real horror, wrapping her up into a dangerous conspiracy and endangering her life.
As a point of order, the word “characters” is a better fit for the central figures of November than “protagonists.” Seemingly as a rule, these characters are entirely reactionary at this point of the story. They are bound by the cage of life, and often lament as such. Slice-of-life narratives inherently tend to be less action-filled and more focused on personality, but they are still driven by a central figure, a protagonist. November has no such central figure driving its story. This is by no means a bad thing — in fact, it is quite interesting to see characters driven by their situations and how they react as such. It is of course possible, and likely probable, that this will change over the course of the full series. For the first showing of the series, however, it is a bold and fascinating creative choice to portray the central characters reacting to the world around them in a very natural manner, rather than force plot progression through unearned character agency.
The world portrayed in November is rough, uncaring, unforgiving. In turn, Charretier has approached it with an eye for this brutality. Her art is seemingly looser than her previous works, showcasing the grit of the world she and Fraction have created. While this might sound like an indictment on her effort in this entry, it very much speaks to her skill in tone and aesthetic. Every line is deliberate and with precious few of them, she portrays the rawest of emotion on each and every character’s face. Many artists struggle with faces and characters being indistinct, but Elsa Charretier is assuredly not one of them. When layered with Matt Hollingsworth’s incredible colors, the art is taken to a new level. Hollingsworth masterfully creates a dim, almost muddy palette. As the story explores shades of gray and diminishing morality in the world, Hollingsworth explores shades himself, mixing blues and browns to contrast with sharp splashes of color. He alone signifies flashbacks in the story, casting a filter over our perception to show the passage of time. Incredibly, he also makes each segment of the story distinct, with each chapter being given its own color scheme. Juxtaposed with Kurt Ankeny’s endearingly human lettering, the visual aspects of the book are incredibly well thought out and viscerally emotional.
For all of November’s excellent plotting and top-tier art, there is one glaring issue: it just doesn’t feel like a complete story. Now, this is of course the first of a three-part tale, but it ultimately leaves more questions than answers. These narrative threads are enticing to be sure, but the book’s installments are six months apart. With such a relaxed release schedule, there is a certain standalone quality to be expected that November does not deliver. Additionally, at a hefty $16.99 price tag, readers should have and expectation of fulfillment that frankly just isn’t found here. Otherwise, November is a fantastic book, blending character drama with atmospheric tension in a genuinely compelling story; the only complaint really boils down to wishing there was more of it.