With intimate observations of love, sex, and identity, Tommi Parrish is one of the most exciting new voices in comics
As you grow up, you might move away from your past, but you never quite leave it behind. Australian-born, Montreal-based cartoonist Tommi Parrish’s new book, The Lie And How We Told It, uses two interlocking narratives to explore this complex relationship between the present and nostalgia. It tells the story of one night in the life of a redhead girl named Cleary, who spends an evening with an old close friend she hasn’t seen since high school and discovers she’s developed emotionally beyond him. But it’s also much more than that.
Parrish, who garnered attention for 2016’s highly interior Perfect Hair via Chicago press 2dcloud, has an incredible knack for expressively shaped figures and layered, atmospheric colours. Parrish’s craft has stepped up intensely with The Lie And How We Told It, which came out on Fantagraphics in late January. The dialogue between Cleary and her still-immature, cringeworthy friend Tim isn’t anything out of the ordinary — the pair reflect on the queerness and depression they hid from one another in their teen years — but it’s somehow thrilling and suspenseful. Both the dialogue and visuals are snappy as hell. Cleary is a protagonist to get behind; she’s always saying things like, “It’s just that… I hate men so much. But I’ll tell you, hating them would be a whole lot simpler if I didn’t want to fuck them, too.” Parrish’s scrappy line work, deft use of motion and panel-shifts, and generous-but-elegant use of colour root the story in intimacy and thoughtfulness.
“There’s always been a huge rush when I’ve made something, because I’ve just wanted to get it over with so I can start the next thing,” Parrish told me when we spoke over the phone about The Lie. “I really took my time with this one, and it made an enormous difference. That’s the kind of writer I wanna be now.” It shows. Before this, they told me, Parrish hadn’t really focused on dialogue. They are versed in zine-making and fascinated by book design, and with each new work, they highlight an aspect of artmaking they haven’t tried before. “It was always personal,” Parrish said, “but there was always a huge distance. I wanted to breach that distance and have [Cleary and Tim] be characters people actually cared about.”
Parrish is on their way to becoming one of the most important voices in comics, an artform they cherish because of its potential to tell lots of different kinds of stories. Not only is Cleary’s story compelling, there’s a whole other level to The Lie. Within Parrish’s one-night story, they have injected a metanarrative: Cleary finds a book titled One Step Inside Doesn’t Mean You Understand in the bushes by the grocery store, and we read it along with her in two split-up installments. Parrish told me they loved the idea of including something within the narrative that would “slap the reader awake,” and “the feeling of the meta-narrative folding in somehow to the atmosphere of the larger story.”
The book-within-the-book is actually based on an experience Parrish had before they left Australia. “I had kind of a breakdown before I left Australia,” Parrish explained of the experience that inspired One Step Inside. “It was fucked up in a way that felt really poetic for some reason. Writing about an experience, and thinly veiling it in fiction, felt as though I was pushing myself to write in a more daring way. I was super uncomfortable about writing it, and everyone that read it was super uncomfortable as well. I got a bit of a thrill out of that — diving as deep as you can and seeing what muck comes up. I love that shit. It’s what gets me excited.”