Content warning: This comic depicts an abusive relationship and abuse is discussed in the review.
John, Dear by Laura Lannes is not an easy comic to read. In terms of construction and artistry, it should be; Lannes uses holes and a physical body’s literal descent into emptiness as a metaphor for the emotional and psychological descent experienced in an abusive relationship. Her line work feels scientific and precise. The cleanly drawn brick walls and the painstakingly shaded, lifelike hand on the cover allude to the way Lannes will use depth in the comic’s guts, recreating the feeling of being hollowed out. John, Dear is likely the most tightly crafted and emotionally striking comic I have read all year—so striking that I had to step away from it immediately after reading to work through the knots in my stomach, and the unsettling empathy it created within me.
The comic opens with this line: “It is very seldom that mere ordinary women like myself get to meet a man as extraordinary as John.” The first two-page spread of the comic is all black with white text declaring this feeling of ordinariness. Most of the text is plain, except for the “I” which is encased in a white box and decorated with beautiful flower buds. On my second read-through I could not help but feel that this “I” was Lannes’ way of communicating what the narrator could not: that she is beautiful, valuable, as extraordinary as a gorgeous set of budding flowers, but does not feel that way about herself. It’s this feeling, enhanced by the incredible grief she feels at the recent loss of her mother, that John latches onto, exploits, manipulates and grows.
John himself appears initially as a black shroud, almost a person but disappearing into the black ink that surrounds the couple as they have sex. As readers, we can see this as a moment of poisoning or demonic possession. This moment visually reveals what John does to the narrator with his words and actions, but trapped in her body and home the narrator cannot see the act of poisoning. As the comic progresses, she only believes more strongly that there is nothing she can do, except trust John, the only support she has, and try to stave off his anger by being the intensely specific sliver of a woman he wants to craft her into.
I hesitate to call this a comic that we need in this current time, this exact moment, because the emotional and psychological abuse it depicts is not unique to our time. Yes, in the era of #MeToo, we need comics like John, Dear that draw the reader into the experience of an abusive relationship, roughly creating much needed empathy. However, the namelessness of the narrator and the blandness of “John”—the title is obviously a play on “Dear John,” using the commonness and innocuousness of “John” to imply that any man can be the John in question—emphasize the timelessness of this comic. Abuse has always happened, does happen, and continues to happen. As we know very very well, justice does not.
John, Dear is a horror story, one many have lived and do live. It’s also a stunningly well-crafted comic that uses gorgeous grey shading, black inks (the holes on the narrator’s body) and depth to immerse its readers completely in the story. Get a copy from Retrofit in digital or physical form as soon as you can.