In. by Will McPhail review – only connect

Will McPhail’s funny, shrewd cartoons often feature animals – amorous crocodiles, sly mice and bickering lizards – and cast a curious eye on human behaviour. He started drawing for Private Eye while still at university, and sketches regularly for the New Yorker; his Instagram feed is a parade of sharp ideas. This clever, thoughtful debut graphic novel shows that he can produce extended narratives with just as much panache as his single-panel cartoons.

In. follows Nick, a city-dwelling illustrator who mixes his own projects with ad agency work and strikes poses in coffee shops and craft-beer bars, while feeling like there must be something more to existence. McPhail laces his middle-class, not-quite-adult life with satire. One coffee shop boast of “a mischievous blend with notes of fermented apricot and polished concrete”; another is staffed by “translucent stable boys” who “leak cold brew from crystal tanks”; a third offers free coffee but charges by the number of pages you write of your screenplay.

But In. offers more than just millennial joshing. There’s a dark undertow beneath the beard oil, spherical ice cubes and milk stouts. The lonely Will repeatedly gazes out, his eyes swollen with want, wondering how to bridge the gap to the people around him, and what to send across it. Then he grabs a coffee, eyes firmly phonewards, as the barista stares quizzically at his face in turn. He sits on the train, romantic thoughts in his head, sketching the woman opposite, until she pulls him up. “You think it’s cute, because you’re drawing instead of taking a picture?”

Nick’s world is jolted by bad news from his mother and a chance meeting with Wren, a doctor with a healthy disrespect for convention and a low tolerance for nonsense. As the mood darkens, the book’s grip tightens. McPhail brilliantly catches the rhythms of conversation, the beats and platitudes and pauses that punctuate both day-to-day routines and our most meaningful moments. Many of his most moving panels are silent, holding the reader in the moment as emotions unravel. Elsewhere, he breaks from black-and-white to explore Nick’s inner life, rendering vast glaciers, strange beasts and deserted cityscapes in rich, surreal colour sequences that offer a lovely counterpoint to his nuanced sketching.

In. is far from the first book to offer hipster satire or an account of a young creative waking up to the world, and love interest Wren lacks the depth of the rest of the cast. But McPhail’s skill makes it all feel wonderfully fresh. At times, In. fizzes with zeitgeist-skewering wit; at others, it probes the quiet places where doubt lurks and love can flourish. It’s a very fine debut, from a serious talent.

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