August 1st, 2017
A review copy was provided in exchange for a fair review.
Silver Sprocket is having a killer year, consistently releasing some incredible comics and merch from heavy hitters like Liz Prince, Jenn Woodall, and Michael Sweater. However, as some will remember from our inspiring and highly professional review of Finding Molly, Melissa Brinks and I have a bit of a thing for cat comics.
When they began promoting the upcoming collection of Benji Nate’s Catboy, currently running as a webcomic on Vice, I knew immediately that this was right up our alley. (Cats? Alleys? Get it?) Catboy follows the strange and silly exploits of Olive, a young artist who wishes her cat Henry could hang out with her like a person, and who gets that wish in the form of an giant anthropomorphized version of her cat!
It’s important that we, as critics and reviewers, are honest about our biases. In the spirit of such honesty, Melissa and I kicked off this review with some important confessions.
Alenka: When I was thinking about this comic, I remembered this book I read in middle school that was about a girl who is hanging around a wishing well with her cat, and starts to make a wish, but then accidentally drops her watch into the well. It turns out that wishing made the well a time portal (???) and she dropped her watch into the past, which could change the world in a horrible butterfly effect way! Some fairies drag her into the past and, to help her out, they turn her cat into a human boy…and of course they fall in love! As an adult I realize how truly bizarre that is, but as a kid I was like yes, this makes perfect sense to me. I have a feeling that that is partly behind my intense excitement for this comic? Maybe middle school Alenka really wanted a cat boyfriend??? I dunno.
Melissa: When I was a kid I told everybody I wanted to marry my cat because obv he was the most important boy in my life, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized that there are different kinds of love and the one that people feel for their romantic partners is not the same as the one they feel for their pets.
This is an observation rather than a question but I want to wear every single outfit in this comic! Like, how good are these looks? I really love that Henry just does not give a fuck about what clothes are masculine or feminine because he’s a cat, which means he gets to look cute AF in whatever he wants to wear.
Alenka: I AGREE! Also, I love the “cool boy” motif on all the clothing! (Benji Nate has a Threadless store that sells her Cool Boy line of clothing, check it out!)
I don’t know exactly how to phrase this question, but I want to talk about how Henry socializes. It’s like…where a human would be missing social cues, Henry just doesn’t give a fuck?
Melissa: Totally! Which I think is something that’s prevalent all through the book, including in the clothing choices. Henry has no interest in social norms (fair, considering he’s a bipedal, human-sized cat who still cleans himself by licking), which makes him both compelling and almost cathartic to read about. I’m not saying I want to bathe myself with my tongue, but there’s a freedom to everything Henry does; when you don’t know social norms, you have no impetus to follow them. I think that’s why he’s a perfect foil to Olive–she lacks both confidence and friends, and Henry is both. He has no self-esteem issues and therefore no trouble talking to whoever, even Dixie, who Olive hates and finds intimidating.
That said, I think Henry also has moments of callousness that do a great job of rooting a comic about an anthropomorphic cat in reality. Social norms and structures can be super frustrating when they alienate you as a person, but empathy and like, not throwing your roommate’s toilet paper everywhere are common courtesies that are also important, and Henry has to learn that.
It’s kind of funny how this is the second comic we’ve read together about artists and cats. What did you think about the subplot of Olive’s art? Did it go the way you expect? And what’s up with comics about artists and cats other than that cats are objectively the best?
Alenka: Cats make a lot of sense as companions for artists; they’re easier to take care of than dogs – well, usually – and they are constant companions to lie around, make you happy, and steal your pens. I also wonder about how our generation has become more vocal about not wanting children, or wanting to live within different kinds of family structures. I love my cat deeply and don’t feel bad about it; I don’t feel burdened by a cat lady stereotype, but rather feel like I am surrounded by peers who (mostly) understand that it’s fine that this animal is integral to my life. Perhaps the cat love is coming from a generation of artists embracing their love for pets as a part of embracing the existence of different kinds of love and family structures? After all, Olive does question her sexuality when she considers dating a boy, another experience I find deeply relatable! Or, I’m just reading into this way too much, and we all are poisoned by that parasite that supposedly makes you obsessed with your cat.
Regarding Olive’s art, I’ve read similar stories in which artists take a moment to reflect on their insecurities or worries surrounding their work, and put them on the page. Benji Nate might be channeling some real feelings of inadequacy here, as well as concerns about the viability of making a living through art, which is also a theme in Finding Molly. However, I enjoyed the subplot about Olive’s art because it feel very real to something many artists discuss, especially marginalized artists who have a harder time breaking into prejudiced industries. Day jobs are often necessary. So many artists are working at coffee shops and in shitty retail stores so that they can afford rent and still pursue what they love; I think Olive’s situation will be very relatable to many artists.
What did you think about the meta art-subplot? I’m also curious if you have any thoughts about Olive’s queerness! I liked the little storyline about Jean, and in the most selfish way, because yeeesh I have been there! Or Henry’s for that matter; we’ve touched on this a bit, he has a kind of genderqueerness, but in an absurd way, because cats don’t have a sense of human gender. They’re cats!
Melissa: I like the art subplot quite a bit! I love the matter-of-factness of the story, and the art subplot was a big part of that. Olive’s wish turns her cat into a person, but she still has to deal with things like making rent and creative fulfillment. I love a good immersive fantasy as much as the next person, but the way that Catboy twists the dial on reality just enough to allow a girl’s cat to become her anthropomorphic BFF is a lot of fun too. As a result, I think Olive’s struggle feels even more real; there’s a chance this story could have felt cliche, but seeing her wrangle with the problem of having her cat now be able to speak and cause all kinds of havoc thanks to that pulls the artistic struggle into a place that’s just different enough to reinvigorate it.
I really love that there’s this question about Olive’s romantic interest, particularly that there’s no neat finish on it. She thinks she doesn’t like boys, but she’s not sure. She thinks she doesn’t want a date with Jean, but she’s disappointed when it doesn’t turn out how she expects. I love that sense of uncertainty, because while I’m sure many people know exactly who they’re into from the get-go, I certainly didn’t! It’s refreshing to have a character not be upset about it, just unsure, and to not have it be a major source of angst or unhappiness, just sort of another thing in her life she’s working on.
Honestly, I would read a romance comic about Henry. I assume he’s probably into cats or other cat people (if there are any–is there a secret tragedy here that Henry is the only one of his kind?) judging from the scene at the pet store. The fact that he exists outside of the human gender binary because he hasn’t been raised in it is just really…nice? Like, it’s so refreshing to have a male character that just doesn’t care about what kind of clothes he wears because it’s completely irrelevant to the way he sees himself.
I’m really into the art style in Catboy. There’s something really charming about the way there’s a lot of detail in the clothes and sometimes the backgrounds, but less to define the characters’ facial features. Instead of feeling vague, this instead leads to some incredible expressions, like this one on the right–the shoulder has almost this sly, coquettish thing going on, while the eyes are all earnest and open. What did you think of the art? Do you think the style lends itself well to the story that’s being told?
Alenka: I like how Nate sometimes prints text on characters’ heads or faces; I read it as using language to convey nonverbal thoughts and feelings. This occurs frequently in the story where Olive and Henry go to the bar and meet Dixie, who is a cool girl. There are lots of words and phrases on Henry’s head, and it conveys that the bar is loud, but his feelings are written all over his face. I’d never seen anything like that before, and it pairs well with what you’ve already discussed – the simplicity of the characters’ faces. Nate gives her characters a lot of emotion via their expressions, but for Henry with his big ‘ol forehead, it’s like he’s also got a pallet just for writing his inner feelings.
I’m also a big fan of Nate’s colors. Olive’s room is always very pastel; she has light pink and blue walls, and Henry and Olive always match the room, and each other! It comes to feel very comfortable over the course of the comic; we’re always coming home to this adorable place where everyone belongs. The pinks and blues are also kind of funny, as if Nate’s giving us a little background reminder that she’s playing with (cat) gender.
In other scenes, there’s a red that Nate uses that really pops out and stands out against the typical color palette. For example, when they go to buy furniture – an act Olive is uncomfortable with, both because she’s a creature of habit who clings to her home space and because it involves Henry blowing a bunch of cash on items she’s deemed frivolous – Olive wears a red beret and a shirt with red sleeves, while Henry wears a red skirt of the same shade, and both wear red shoes. Nate’s clearly very in tune with her characters’ emotions; she does so much just with color, some well-placed text, and faces!
Catboy has an incredible, absurd sense of humor. There are some comics with hilarious punchlines that all play on the fact that Henry is a giant, sort of anthropomorphic cat, but Nate also sprinkles humorous moments throughout the series that often play on the uniqueness of Henry’s situation. For example, when Henry helps Olive haul art out to sell, he proclaims, “I’m never busy!” which is true! Cats are never busy! That killed me. What’d you think about the humor, does it work for you?
Melissa: The humor definitely works for me. I’m kind of picky about humor, on the whole, but Nate has this really charming, playful sense of humor that is sometimes just stating the truth in a surprising way–such as the “I’m never busy!” line you mentioned–and sometimes more goofy, like the girl at the slumber party who’s obsessed with Honey I Shrunk the Kids or Henry trying to order diet pizza. The comics usually have a few jokes peppered throughout them, and not all of them necessarily end on a definitive punchline, which I think helps keep it feeling like more of a story rather than a collection, though of course, most of them can be read individually as well. It’s a lot of fun!
I don’t think the comic is meant to be super deep, but not everything has to be. There are certainly themes to be read there and Catboy is delightful to both read and look at. It’s nice, sometimes, to read something that is exactly what it seems–a fun, silly, earnest comic with a weird premise that works because its creator does it without irony or malice or distance. I love that!
Alenka: I’d been thinking about this, but it really hit me when I was eating a very cute cupcake today. Catboy is very indulgent. Olive is a broke artist but who has a closet full of cute clothing for both her and her cat, she gets to experience something I think all cat owners think about – my cat has a chronic illness, and I’ve wished so many times that she could tell me when something was wrong – and the pages are very much like cute cupcakes, overflowing with sweet colors and the most stylish fashion. Even moments like Henry stealing wine or the comic about Olive’s job interview – which is very good so I will NOT spoil it – feel indulgent. This comic is an adorable, luxurious cupcake with just the right amount of sugar.
You can pre-order Catboy and get extra goodies, like stickers, patches and enamel pins, from Silver Sprocket.