The first page of Number #2 introduces us to Rose: 33-years-old, waiting for her Obamacare to kick in, and riding a skateboard while drunk.
Somewhere, perhaps eating plain yogurt in a desolate New York Times breakroom, A.O. Scott feels a mysterious twinge of pain
The death of the American adult and a wonton disregard for the preordained rhythms of linear storytelling are both present in full force in Number #2, the latest anthology from Philadelphia artist Box Brown.
Number #2 feels simultaneously super modern and gloriously old school as Brown uses classic comic book craftsmanship to tackle the strange state of now. Reminiscent of Golden Age funnies or underground comix of the ‘60s, each page brings a cascade of neatly rendered panels containing textures, figures, jokes, and cultural avatars from the world around us captured for posterity (and entertainment) in a hyper-real dot matrix landscape.
While there’s not a ton of traditional buildup or structure plot comedown throughout the book, every page in Number #2 tells a condensed and potent story on its own. Shirking rigid structures, Brown tells his stories in a series of naturalistic yet super-stylized waves that cumulatively build a narrative that’s funny, beautiful, and kind of powerful. Despite its slacker trappings and Internet Age ennui, the short stories that make up this comic deliver an experience that feels nothing short of poetic.
The issue is split between two stories. The first, “Sk8rH8r”, features the previously mentioned skateboarding Rose as she puts around town with a bit of a buzz on and a hankering for some cheeseburgers. She encounters Bob, local professional drunk, and a bizarre yet mundane street-level tale unfolds from there.
From Bob’s shaky and unkempt form to Rose’s slouched strolling, “Sk8rH8r” is told in stark black and white art with a punchy style that falls somewhere between Jamie Hernandez and the pixels of old computer games. Brown deftly gives the readers’ eyes a lot to pick apart and repeatedly roll over, from isometric cheeseburgers to Rose’s kinetic skateboarding. The lines are tight and confident, and it feels like the whole world could be passed through this funky lens and somehow make sense.
“Sk8rH8r” packs a surprising amount of story into the margins of its sarcastic and breezy panels. Sure, there’s the goofy freewheeling-ness of “adult” Rose landing an ollie and giving in to the carnal joy of being crunk on a skateboard (don’t try this at home, kids) but all the “whoa, dude” humor gives way to something more. “Sk8rH8r” tells its story via its crafty point of view more than anything else, and the way Brown positions everything from Rose shuffling down the street to bulky cops to the deranged face of drunken Bob reeks of reality and all it’s multilayered weirdness.
The book’s second chapter, “Elroy Mirror’s Big Score”, follows a similar approach. We’re given flashes into the life of struggling (kinda) documentary filmmaker Elroy Mirror as he deals with the incredible heaviness of being… on the Internet. Mirror schleps his way from podcasts to Twitter to documentary websites and through his eyes readers are shown a special kind of 21st century dread. The anxiety of social media and the grind of the digital age hang over Elroy like a thick cloud.
“Big Score” again doesn’t utilize much of a plot to tells its story. Brown uses splash pages with interesting and well-balanced layouts to give us vantages into Mirror’s mindset and experience. From unhatched blog monetization plans to slow-simmering text message exchanges, the story hits on relatively uncovered territory but in a way that anchors it with everlasting human emotions; namely pain, self-doubt, and more pain.
All told, Number #2 is like a Lorde song in comic form, except not played out. The towns have no names and the skylines consist only of White Castle restaurants. In moments clever and juvenile, poignant and meaningless, Box Brown shows us pockets of the world not likely to be found on any screen. The artwork and execution is as wonderfully entertaining to look at as a scrolling Twitter feed on a shiny new iPhone, but actually real.