A graphic novel on the push and pull of friendships

Design: Sarah Anjum Bari Photo: Twitter

The last decade has seen the graphic novel take off in mainstream literary circles, moulding the depth of emotive storytelling with gorgeous, picturesque artwork. Most graphic novels, save a few such as Will Eisner's A Contract with God, have rarely been a collection of short stories. It's Not What You Thought It Would Be (Fantagraphics, 2021) is one such graphic novel saturated with a plethora of short stories around themes of friendship—the lost ones, the transitory ones, and the recovering ones—alongside ideas about the formation of the self. How does one navigate expectations, and accept the terms of a relationship between one's desires and needs? 

The author-illustrator, Lizzy Stewart, who teaches illustration at Goldsmiths College, conjures up a series of short, lively, and uniquely heartwarming stories that make it hard to believe that this is her debut collection. Stewart places her strong female characters and stories in a myriad of different settings which serve as the background to a flow of the conversations taking place. Intensely relatable as the reader flips the pages, the stories occur in places deeply etched into many of our memories—from rooftops to buses to benches in the park to the digital world of emails and texts.

Nine incredibly jarring and vibrantly beautiful stories wrapped into one book. The stories take place in line with the ebb and flows of seeking different truths and understanding friendships and relationships with a heartfelt intensity. Each story has a unique setting to it. 

The first story, "Heavy Air", deals with a group of friends making a shelter for an injured fox in a neglected estate that ends up getting wrecked by a torrent of rainfall. "Blush" deals with the annals of growing up "embarrassed to get anything right and equally embarrass[ed] to get anything wrong", ending with the positive message of self-growth.

"Dog Walk" is an exciting story with two teenage girls frolicking from the park to a nearby roof, hoping to meet someone new and exciting. Interesting stories that harken to a time we have known and relished. 

"Walking Home" is a short story without any dialogue whatsoever; it leaves the sepia-minded artwork to do the talking in the reader's mind. "Quiet" is about a voice artist struggling to juggle her own needs versus the demands of her followers. "Kindness is a noise. I wanted to make people hear kindness", the artist says in the story. 

Perhaps the most heartfelt stories in the collection are "A Quick Catch Up" and "The Wedding Guests", which deal with placements and changing courses of friendship, from deep trust to the mundane to distant ones, portrayed through both in-person conversations and in digital settings. The dialogues are emotive, beguiling, and relatable. 

The artwork in each of the stories is relatable. Muted with shades of black, white, grey and blue—except the last story, which is filled with colours as the two characters chart their journey from dreamy childhood to the confusing phase of adulthood. The pages change from water colour images of nature and spaces to blue-ink drawn landscapes of various settings and the inhabitants in them. 

This is a soft, reflective collection of storytelling that touches your nerves gently, proving the tenacity and importance of friendships in our daily lives. In a banal life filled with anxieties, It's Not What You Thought It Would Be proves how, at the end of the day, we both constitute and make our own stories.

Israr Hasan is a Senior Research Assistant at BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health.