“Utown” by Cab

I had the chance to finish Caroline Breault’s Utown today. At time of writing, it’s a webcomic, with a French-language print as well. An English version is due in 2023.

You might be familiar with the premise : young starving artist Sam struggles to find a way to make ends meet while dealing with past trauma and social issues. Pair him up with runaway problem child Ed, throw in the impending destruction of their lifestyle, and voilà, your stage is set. It’s not a particularly original setup, but these days rarely anything is. Simply, Utown is a well-told story made with a lot of love and care.

The character designs are cartoony, yet demonstrate real heft in their form. Breault’s style somehow manages to be both painterly and carefully rendered, but not in the “every frame a painting” sort of way that has crept into so many a blockbuster film. It’s apparent that a human hand has drawn these pictures, which is the sort of thing I love to see in artwork. The page layouts are simple, which is not a complaint: reading prose is always technically a simple thing to do, and comics shouldn’t deviate from that with too many overly-ambitious layouts. You probably won’t notice the layouts in the book (except for one satisfying game-changer in the end; you’ll know it when you see it) and that only helps the story.

Given the lively comic art, you might conclude that the rules of reality for the narrative are also out the window. To its credit, Utown firmly avoids going any further into artistic abstraction. Publisher Oni Press states that the story is “perfect for fans of Scott Pilgrim,” which I feel is half-true. Both series feature a somewhat likable slacker as a lead, but there are no spectacular video-game style boss battles in Utown. Where Scott Pilgrim profits by literally punching his problems away, Utown‘s Sam has no such luck, choosing to get high or drunk (or both) in the face of adversity. The rest of the Utown cast react to their fate in all the ways real-world people do. There are no dramatic schemes, no elaborate revenge plots, no violations of physics for the sake of comedy. The cast act like their lives are important, and nothing that happens in the story ever feels contrived or unrealistically dramatic. Ultimately, it’s a slice-of-life in the truest sense, as these characters grow (or don’t) and have interests and lives outside of the plot and each other.

Which, by the end of Utown, might be the point. This book shows us a chapter of one person’s life story, and it’s very clearly just a chapter. But it’s a complete chapter, well-told and presented, which is the best anyone can really ask for.

Read Utown here.

Utown is the story of a seedy neighborhood that a cast of misfits call home. Inspired by a string of real events that took place in my own city, the story follows Samuel, a 24 year-old semi-aspiring artist (but mostly a video store clerk) who’s doing his best at avoiding adulthood. When gentrification shows up at his doorstep, he must face the fact that the town he grew up in is no longer his safe haven–and that he’s not ready to leave just yet. With no money and little options, it’s time for him to either step up and prove his worth as a serious artist or keep on repeating old, toxic behaviors.

—Promotional text goes here for Utown by Cab.
Published by Oni Press, 2023.

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