(The following contains spoilers for Nothing Better #1.)
After an initial reading, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the first issue of Tyler Page’s Nothing Better (Dementian Comics). It seemed to start in a very low-key, observant place, then move rather swiftly into more melodramatic territory. By the end, differences of perspective erupt into shouting matches and slammed doors, and I admit that the comic made me laugh in places where I suspect it didn’t mean to.
After a couple of subsequent readings, I’ve decided that I’m fond of Nothing Better in the same way I am of other young-adult melodramas like Degrassi: the Next Generation. The eruptions of just-post-adolescent melodrama have the happy effect of letting me be moved while still finding them funny. The characters would hate it if they knew I was laughing at them from my old-man chair, but they don’t need to know.
The first issue follows Jane Fisher as she arrives for her freshman year at a Lutheran college. Page has good eyes and ears for the summer-camp quality of those first days of higher education – independent but not, structured but solitary, and sometimes a little mortifying. Jane’s terrifyingly enthusiastic resident assistant gathers the corridor for a “getting to know you” session (“Say your name, and one thing about yourself!”). “My name is Jane and… my roommate isn’t here yet,” is Jane’s pitch-perfect contribution.
As the new arrivals go through the stations of the freshman cross, Jane feels out of step due to her missing roomie. Katt Conner eventually arrives, but Jane isn’t particularly comforted. Katt rolls her eyes at the mixers and corridor activities. She’s glad to be away from her family. (Jane misses hers.) She smokes and sneaks off to less socially sedate corners of campus, dragging Jane with her. Fed up with Jane’s mild (but somewhat constant) disapproval, Katt plays a nasty prank on Jane. To her credit, Katt regrets it almost immediately and tries to clean up after, but the fallout throws Jane even further off of her freshman stride.
Thanks to Katt, Jane is late for course registration and winds up stuck in a religion class called “The Bible for Pagans.” Katt is in it, too, and she can’t understand Jane’s disappointment. This leads Jane to wonder, with disbelief and perhaps a little terror, if Katt is “like an atheist or something?” Glare! Shout! Slam! (Snicker.)
The tricky thing, and the thing that saves the book for me, is that the shifts in tone don’t come out of nowhere. Things do run from one to ten, but Page successfully portrays this as a function of the highly charged experience. His cast members are experiencing their first taste of independence and coming at it with different expectations. Their clashes are heightened but strangely natural at the same time. Jane didn’t expect to be stuck with some atheist art student who drinks and smokes any more than Katt was looking forward to nine months with a homesick Lutheran tight-ass. Neutral corners, and come out fighting!
I don’t know if I’m enjoying Nothing Better in precisely the way I’m supposed to, but I’m enjoying it nonetheless.