Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Story: Shaun Simon
Artist: Tyler Jenkins
Colorist: Kelly Fitzpatrick
Letterer: Nate Piekos of Blambot
Cover Artist: Conor Nolan
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. Read at your own risk!
Neverboy is one of the most imaginative comics of 2015. Please forgive the pun, but when the protagonist is an imaginary friend made flesh and the conflict puts the very concept of imagination at stake, it’s hard for me to resist. Neverboy is a bit like a dream, carrying you through on its unique logic as you drift through half-formed haze. It’s a “wish-I’d-thought-of-it” concept that was fun to read.
The titular character of Neverboy survived the death of the human boy who created him, and by taking drugs, he makes himself real and tangible. With his own imagination, he creates a wife and son from a cereal billboard and tries to create a normal life for himself. While evading agents of the Odyssey Diner who want to stop him from existing, Neverboy meets a failing artist-turned-cabbie, Julian Drag. When Drag becomes entangled in Neverboy’s struggle for existence, he puts all of imagination at risk.
The art immediately jumped out at me. Conor Nolan’s covers in particular are striking, with a hallucinogenic quality that blends times and places from the issue. Neverboy himself is all angles, with pointy hair and extreme joints, a prominent nose and a long, pointed chin. Tyler Jenkins’ line work has a rough quality that sets the tone, and it contrasts with very straight panel borders. Most pages are structured with a consistent border of bleed, which makes layouts interesting when people and objects break out of their panels. Even with the bleed border, though, the panels within have interesting layouts, despite typically being only rectangles and squares.
Most of Neverboy takes place in New York City, but the urban environments are still interesting to look at. I found myself comparing the way buildings are drawn to the work of Moebius, not because they have any sci-fi qualities, but because they have the same characteristic slightly uneven inks, similar perspectives, and smooth, limited-detail facades. It lends to the dream-like quality of the narrative I mentioned earlier. Kelly Fitzpatrick’s colors also work to this end. The use of saturation, particularly for real manifestations of the imaginary, provides contrast for when the imaginary fades or dies. When Neverboy is real, his hair is brown, but when the drugs begin to wear off, it becomes the white his human friend gave him. At the same time, ocean-like tides of technicolor wash away his wife and child when his drugs wear off and he can’t keep them tangible. And later, when Julian begins draining artistic inspiration from the imaginary beings, they become gray and withered, or mutate into monsters, an effective device of line and color for visible representation of the abstract.
Which brings me to the strengths of the story. Neverboy exists in a world where a Ministry of Imagination regulates the distinction between the imagined and the real, preventing the imagined from intruding on the real and the real from abusing the imagined. The Diner is referred to as the source of inspiration, and it’s meant to find people in need of ideas. It’s a between-place they’re never meant to seek out or clearly remember going to, one that appears when it’s needed. One of Neverboy’s themes is the theft of inspiration, because when Julian paints the imaginary creatures he kidnaps, they die, eventually threatening imagination as a whole. There are also some interesting little hints at the wider cosmology of this world, making it bigger without overplaying anything, such as when an octopus dressed like a cowboy enters the diner talking about an appointment with two kids in their backyard.
For all that Neverboy is interesting, though, I found some issues with the pacing of the emotional beats. Most of Neverboy’s emotional arc worked: his desire for a family to replace his human, his desire to be real instead of being repurposed. Julian Drag’s, however, felt a little quick to me. Though the book does a good job at showing his desperation and ambitious greed, he moves pretty quickly and easily into the role of villain in a way that didn’t entirely work for me, and his repentance was just as quick. Finally, the ending romantically pairs Neverboy with a recurring character named Fantasy Girl in such a way that suggests a build to it that just didn’t happen.
Despite these missteps, Neverboy has a good hook and a well-realized world. That alchemy creates a phantasmal story buoyed by human emotion.