Top Shelf has taken on some younger cartoonists and is publishing a few debuts this fall. One of these debut artists is Chris Gooch, a Melbourne-based cartoonist, whose first graphic novel Bottled broke ground at SPX this year. Gooch has been a fairly active zine maker and anthologist up to this point, and he was selected for the 2016 TRANSIT artist residency at CAKE. Bottled, a 288 page graphic novel, is his first long-form work. Bottled released to booksellers a few weeks ago in mid-November, but my understanding is that it has available to purchase at stores with Diamond distribution contracts since October.
In Bottled, Jane, a disaffected millennial woman, is trying to move out of her parent’s place. She’s got few prospects, isn’t really going anywhere in life, but has found a potential apartment to live in with her boyfriend Ben. The problem is finding the cash for rent and a deposit. Meanwhile, Jane’s best friend from university Natalie is back in town for business after living in Japan for a couple years. She’s a model and is doing an H&M shoot, which means industry parties, shows, and interviews. But when Natalie gets blackout drunk at a party and confesses she hooked up with Ben last year, Jane decides to make a move that will change the three of them forever.
The first thing that struck me about Bottled is how it captures the 2017 zeitgeist. In Bottled, Chris Gooch is exploring some of the key themes that beset the now aging millennial – the lack of stable work, the need to rely on assistance from their parents, the lack of prospects. But Bottled uses the interpersonal failings of family and friends to reflect the economic, political, and social unease of the millennial generation in a way that I felt fresh and compelling.
The book is imbued with menace, using a dark red over black and white in various spot colors and gradients to capture the malevolence of the story, and it sets the tone perfectly. We see that menace most often in the visages of men – Jane’s adulterous father, her unfaithful boyfriend, the creep trying to take her money and rent her a shitty room. There’s a clear cyclical link between Jane’s rationale for leaving her parent’s house and her plot to make it happen, both of which involve the infidelities of the men in her life. Gooch uses that male menace, infidelity, and neglect as the catalyst for the female on female psychological violence and trauma that fuels the action of Bottled.
Gooch’s cartooning has an almost uncanny valley aspect to it – characters faces are often twisted up in snarls or scowls that look just slightly distorted. The illustration is clean and simple, but it has a sense of otherworldliness that I found haunting. A dream sequence, where Natalie sees knives flying through her body, captured that sense of otherness and distilled it in a well-timed shot.
At times it feels like the characters are wearing masks, and their actions have a sort of dream logic, as though this whole exercise were a kind of stage play. And perhaps that’s the best way to think about Bottled, as a kind of grand guignol for the age of instagram. Bottled’s characters are self-focused and obsessed with the idyllic. The desire for perfection, the exasperated need for it, the weight of it, the greed inherent in it, all these things drive the horror of this comic. But Bottled is not just a strong criticism of our time; it’s also bleak, theatrical, and wicked. It’s a captivating combination.
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