There’s something extraordinary about how comic books depict environments. Because pages are composed of individual panels, creators have the opportunity to spotlight many different parts of a setting. These separate images come together in a layout that moves through the space, and the larger page functions as a single piece of art reinforcing the overall atmosphere by uniting all those distinct pieces. A graphic novel like Richard McGuire’s Here gains an almost mystical quality in its intricate layering of panels showing a single physical space at different points in its millennia-spanning history, building a narrative entirely around how a setting changes over time.
Two new graphic novels do exceptional work establishing a sense of place, taking readers into home spaces that become prisons over time. In Seth’s Clyde Fans, a poignant meditation on memory and family over 20 years in the making, the titular storefront and the domestic quarters above it have soaked up decades of resentment and disappointment from two brothers forever changed by the abandonment of their father. Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore’s BTTM FDRS is far more fantastic, telling a creepy, grotesque story about a living building in the Bottomyards, a fictional neighborhood on the south side of Chicago.
Clyde Fans is fixated on the characters’ internal lives, using copious narration to get into the brothers’ heads and explore their anxieties and obsessions. With a pale monochromatic coloring (primarily light blue) and artwork that falls on set panel grids (3x3, 3x4, 4x6), it has a uniform aesthetic and a tightly controlled pace that changes to illuminate mental shifts. In many ways, BTTM FDRS is Clyde Fans’ opposite: bright colors, quick pace, gross-out scares, a plot that deals with macro issues like gentrification and cultural appropriation. It’s about the external forces that corrupt a space, given physical form as a monstrous being originally created with the intent of revolutionizing urban development for the better.
There’s not much overlap between these two books, but reading them together offers a fascinating comparison of how to use settings to conjure emotional reactions. The emotions in Clyde Fans mostly fall on the downer side of the spectrum; Seth establishes a lonely, somber tone from the start with a series of two-page illustrations of eerie empty rooms. Readers will become very familiar with these spaces over the course of the book, and Seth provides a comprehensive tour in the opening scene, a 64-page monologue that has an elderly Abraham musing about his past and sharing what he’s learned from his years as a salesman. He speaks confidently about his sales prowess during this speech, but when the story flashes back, his attitude at the time is much less self-assured.
After that monologue, the story jumps back 40 years to follow Abraham’s brother on a sales trip to Dominion, the fictional town that also exists as a miniature cardboard replica in Seth’s home studio. (Check out the documentary Seth’s Dominion to learn more about this.) This trip convinces the introverted, neurotic Simon that he has no future in sales, but it also leads to a moment of transcendent self-realization, presented later in the book in a surreal, poetic sequence that sends Simon’s consciousness outside of his body, traveling across a slew of locations as he realizes that his place isn’t out in the world, but inside the childhood home he’ll never escape. Simon has a more intense connection to the home than his brother, and scenes like Simon recalling every object in his mother’s room go into micro detail to emphasize how the space has left a profound mark on Simon’s mental state.
BTTM FDRS is steeped in social, political, and cultural commentary, which only becomes more pronounced as the building’s tragic history is exposed. By contrast, Clyde Fans doesn’t spend much time addressing the external world around its main characters, and when it does, the circumstances are very different depending on which brother is in the spotlight. When Abraham signs away the family business, he’s confronted by the grizzled faces of the workers he’s just put out of work, people who need employment after the recession of the early ’70s. For Simon, larger social issues come into play through pickaninny toys he acquires, symbols of the prejudiced, hateful views that are widely shared at the time. In an interview with The Comics Journal, Seth explains the significance of the pickaninny imagery:
"I’m often called a nostalgist but I’m aware of the racism and misogyny of that white man’s world I’m portraying. I don’t want some golden fog of the past… Why is it that Simon goes back to his room with the racist toy instead of any of the other cheap novelties Whitey was peddling? Because the vulgar toys are a symbol of emasculation, humiliation, servitude and the loss of human dignity, something Simon is allowing to happen to himself but is also complicit in."
One of the most unsettling scenes occurs when Simon talks to a pickaninny figurine that sits on his shelf, which speaks in empty word balloons while staring intensely at nothing. Simon projects all of his insecurities onto the talking toy, and while we don’t see the words he’s hearing in his mind, his reactions reinforce this idea that the pickaninny is there to tear down Simon and make him feel unworthy. This racial commentary is one of the few places where Clyde Fans and BTTM FDRS intersect on a thematic level. While the former doesn’t focus on tools and methods of oppression like the latter, Clyde Fans acknowledges the ways that white people feed a system that keeps marginalized communities down and prevents society from making positive changes for all.