Things start off bad and quickly get worse for the titular protagonist in Julian in Purgatory. The prodigal son of the severe former mayor of an unnamed town in Ohio, Julian is possessed of a bad attitude, a long-suffering girlfriend, and an unrelenting pill habit. When girlfriend Dana’s repeated attempts to get Julian into a job and off drugs are rebuffed one time too many, she kicks him out, and the ne’er-do-well Julian, driven by addiction, soon finds himself embroiled in a series of intoxicated mishaps and ill-considered criminal schemes. What starts off as a manic, at times hilarious drug-fueled binge soon takes a dark turn, and Julian finds himself well out of his depth and in truly frightening situations.
Jon Allen’s cartoony drawing style (Julian and his friends and enemies are drawn as cats, dogs, bears and other anthropomorphic characters), snappy dialogue, and breezy pacing belie the depth of this graphic novel’s themes and narrative heft. Allen’s artwork, reminiscent of both Bryan Lee O’Malley and James Kochalka, is drawn in crisp black-white-and-grey tones and is full of subtle jokes and details that reward multiple readings: The feminine scented candles and red wine (sporting hilarious names like “Oak Weasel” and “Wet Elf Merlot”) that appear when Dana kicks Julian out of her apartment, the angelic monument to the victims of “Piney Bluff Coal Mine of 1909” that now serves as a seedy meeting spot for drug deals, the rich tapestry of clutter and garbage populating the homes of twenty-something slackers in this down-on-its-luck Rust Belt town.
In the grand tradition of old-school comic strips the book is full of very funny dialogue and expertly-timed situational gags, but “Julian in Purgatory” is a darker and more serious read than it might first appear. The genuine pathos of Julian’s drug problem is evident, and the connections to the real-world opioid crisis which is running rampant through communities like the one depicted in these pages are clear. Allen eschews the desire to wrap things up with a neat little bow, and despite some interesting Biblical themes this is no typical “road to redemption” narrative… The underlying problems pushing Julian to drug use aren’t magically erased, and the road ahead for everyone in his circle feels daunting. Anyone who has seen a loved one go through the cycles of addiction (or gone through it themselves) will be able to recognize the familiar shadow of relapse that haunts this book.
Julian in Purgatory is a stand-alone graphic novel, but it also forms a part of the Allen’s wider Ohio is for Sale universe, characters from that book, The Lonesome Era, and other self-published stories appear here in secondary roles. The depth and breadth of the narrative can be seen at the edges in ways that reminded me of Jaime Hernandez’s Locas stories or David Lapham’s Stray Bullets series: This world and the characters seem to expand beyond the page (the snappy, chatty scenes with Dana and her pal Veronika in particular make you want to follow along with their story), the reader gets the distinct impression that Allen is going to be mining different corners of his creation for a long time to come. I for one am looking forward to seeing what he finds there.