I came late to Allie Brosh’s “Hyperbole and a Half” — later than the outspoken fan Bill Gates and numerous enthusiastic writers for Psychology Today — but when I fell, I fell hard. (I even bought the calendar.) A selection of Brosh’s autobiographical word-and-image stories from her blog of the same name (which she began in college while procrastinating for a final), “Hyperbole and a Half” made me laugh harder than anything I could remember.
First there was her drawing style: a charming, stripped-down visual vocabulary accomplished entirely in the free software program Paintbrush, in which faces — of effervescently manic children, bewildered staring parents and various dogs — took center stage as vehicles of expression.
Then there was her muscular storytelling, which, like her drawing, was economical and effective, hitting just the right beats, both funny and dark, introspective and observant. And often structurally ingenious: “Warning Signs,” a piece about digging up, in the backyard, a letter she wrote to her future self when she was 10, is addressed to other versions of her past self. She appears, at all ages, as a small creature with stick arms, a bright pink dress and a yellow ponytail.
One of Brosh’s central subjects was — and still is — depression. She found fame and community on the internet creating stories that explained what it felt like to be depressed, evoking the disconnect between interior feeling and exterior behavior through the interplay of words and images. In one vivid example, she tries to move her face into appropriate expressions in conversation: “How do you make the face for ‘yay’? Am I doing it? I hope I’m doing it,” she thinks.
Around the time “Hyperbole and a Half” was published in 2013 — it was a best seller — Brosh went dark on the internet. Her latest, highly anticipated book, SOLUTIONS AND OTHER PROBLEMS (528 pp., Gallery, $30), had been announced on Amazon for years, with a shifting set of publication dates and cancellations. It’s a much bigger book than the portable softcover “Hyperbole and a Half”; clocking in at over 500 pages, it feels much less disciplined. While Brosh’s sly, goofy style still appeals, and presents even more variety here, the stories are uneven. One has a punch line about piles of solid waste. (Sigh: “The Poop Mystery.”) Brosh often doubles down on her prose, explaining and re-explaining a point.
The tautness of her earlier stories is largely missing. Some are fanciful, like “Daydreams,” which cycles through visions of triumph; partway through, after drawing the intrigues of an international chess competition, the narrator proclaims, “I’m not sure where it goes after that, but feel free to enjoy this disjointed stream of victory related images,” which she then presents. (Brosh’s grandiosity is an ongoing joke.) Large parts of the book have a similar meandering feel. In one story that exhausts itself in action and tone, she details how a determined child, a neighbor, is desperate to show a resistant Brosh her bedroom; what might be a two-page anecdote here runs almost 20 pages.
And yet there are some genuinely moving episodes in “Solutions and Other Problems.” Enfolded into the childhood high jinks and adult meditations is a tribute to her sister, Kaiti, who died by suicide in 2013, shortly after the release of “Hyperbole and a Half.” Within a long chapter called “Losing,” Brosh pays tribute to her in a wordless, 12-page spread that offers images of their shared childhood; the first image is Kaiti as a onesie-wearing infant, looking up from her crib. Brosh draws a reverse shot to open this sequence: The first panel takes Allie’s perspective, looking down at her expectant, cheerful baby sister, followed by what Kaiti sees, a grinning child standing over her, poking toys into the crib for her amusement. “We’d had a strange relationship, and I wasn’t prepared for it to be over,” Brosh writes by way of introduction. Here the silent images show the sisters, who grew up in rural Idaho, coming together and coming apart.
Dan Mazur’s LUNATIC: A WORDLESS STORY (200 pp., Fanfare, $20), is a whimsical tale that unfurls, much like Brosh’s piece about her sister, without dialogue or verbal narration, but in a richly textured black and white. One of my favorite images, in shadowy charcoal strokes, shows a small baby, in bonnet and ruffled collar, staring meaningfully up from her pram at what we later realize is the full moon. Her little arms rest in front of her, utterly relaxed; when the moon smiles at her, she waves back.
“Lunatic” is a Victorian-era story that charts the life of this unnamed person and her deep love affair with the moon, which leads her to shun human romance and also to pursue astronomy. It’s a feminist book about following your passions over and against convention; its title derives from the Latin, meaning “of the moon,” or “moonstruck,” and the protagonist’s communication with that luminous satellite is certainly mystical.
What animates “Lunatic” is not only its propulsive, chronological story — we are treated to only one image per page and yet move quickly through the stages of the character’s life — but also Mazur’s careful rendering. The style changes meaningfully, from fine and detailed in one chapter to loose thick lines in the next. “I wanted each picture to have its own ‘presence,’” Mazur writes in a postscript about process, which reveals his historical influences and his tools, including tape and toothbrushes. (What I called “charcoal” above? Technically it’s a conté crayon.) As fascinating as the story itself, this section underscores the labor that goes into creating graphic narratives — a feature implicit in the talented Brosh’s messy take on the messiness of life.