The things we own
THE things you own end up owning you.
This quote, from cult book and film Fight Club, is a scathing indictment of our modern materialistic culture. Bad Houses, Sara Ryan’s first full-length graphic novel, takes a gentler, more reflective approach in addressing the issue, but in its own way, can be no less potent when it wants to be.
Set in Failin, Oregon, a formerly bustling small town that has long since lost its sheen, Bad Houses is a story about the things we collect, the things we leave behind, and what those things say about us.
The story begins with an estate sale where a person with no real bearing to the story is introduced to the reader through the objects she has left behind in death. We’re never told what these things actually meant to the deceased, but to Lewis and his mother Cat, who are running the estate sale, they represent a financial opportunity – as they also apparently do to Fred, an aggressive antiques dealer who is an old hand at acquiring bargains at such sales.
To Anne, however, who shows up at the sale out of curiosity, the left-behind items hold both fascination and revulsion. With her mother Danica being a compulsive hoarder, Anne has an innate aversion to keeping things, and yet she is also strangely drawn to what these objects say about the people who used to own them.
It is at this estate sale that Anne and Lewis meet, and this sets in motion a journey of discovery, of Anne and Lewis’ present and their mothers’ pasts, all linked in ways that only life in a small town can allow. The story ingeniously uses the very objects it questions to unravel how each of them came to be where they are. As each mother grapples with her own neuroses, their children both mirror them and simultaneously distance themselves.
(A “bad house”, Lewis explains to Anne, is a house that requires a lot of work before being able to have a sale – like that of a hoarder, for instance.)
Carla Speed McNeil’s artwork is a major part of Bad Houses’ appeal. Her dynamic black and white illustrations bringing the characters’ emotions to vivid life, particularly with Anne, whom McNeil depicts with large luminous eyes and an incredibly expressive face.
She also excels at filling the panels with details, giving, for instance, Danica’s house a claustrophobic air, but in contrast, creates a palpable sense of relief and freedom when Anne finds herself in empty spaces.
Where the graphic novel sometimes falters is in its depiction of Anne and Lewis’ romance, mostly owing to the weak development of the latter’s character. While Anne is extremely engaging, Lewis remains removed, defined only by how others react to him. Perhaps this was intentional, but it also makes their relationship less interesting.
Danica, too, deserves more attention that the story gives her. While her relationship with AJ (whose mother lives at the assisted living care centre she works at) is intriguing, her character is never developed beyond Anne’s impression of her.
Yet, Bad Houses ends up telling a story that feels very familiar, and in its tangled relationships we see ourselves and the way we relate to the things we hold dear. Yes, the things you own do end up exerting a hold on you, but, Bad Houses seems to suggest, but you also imbue the objects you own with an unexplainable something. And which of those two forces ends up being stronger may decide whether you leave behind a “bad house” or not.