If you merely heard about it, then you’d probably be forgiven for wondering if Matt Howarth’s The Downsized was in fact done by that Matt Howarth.
A middle-aged writer who left town to pursue his dreams in LA returns to Michigan, older, fatter, balder and still not the success he planned to be by this point, on the occasion of his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. There he meets up with his siblings, friends, cousins and former girlfriend. In the course of four long scenes spread across 80 pages and set almost entirely in hotel rooms, we get to know this cast of characters and their conflicts.
In other words, it’s real-world drama told almost exclusively through conversations, as if the reader were in the room and overhearing the action, almost like a stage-play. It’s about growing up, and, in a more vague way, how the current society and economy frustrates doing so, and how maturity is mostly relative anyway.
And yes, it’s by that Matt Howarth, the cartoonist best known for his 1980’s and early ‘90s Bugtown, Those Annoying Post Brothers and Savage Henry comics (the latter about a guitarist from an alternate reality), the cartoonist who did some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics, a DC/Helix miniseries about a romance between a space alien and a sentient asteroid and high sci-fi comics featuring Keif Llama.
The Downsized might therefore not sound like something from Howarth, but there’s no mistaking the work of the creator by sight.
He’s a master of his very own sort of often incongruously complicated minimalism. His characters are all seemingly formed from as few lines forming a handful of shapes as necessary, but the lines themselves are often formed of little side-by-side dots, suggesting a pointillist step to his process. Then, as simple-seeming as the characters and objects might appear, Howarth will decorate them with repeated but still simple lines, dots and crosshatching.
He gets a remarkable variety of textures in this way—there are several panels where you can practically feel the different fabrics of the clothes—and a more remarkable still range of emotions and expressions from his cast.
As different as this story may be from much of his work, it turns out to be an excellent showcase for his art, as the large cast of mainly related characters gives him an excellent opportunity to show off his abilities as a character designer, and that he can recreate real people in the real world and address real issues just as easily as he can conjure the fantastic.
The story is somewhat satisfying, although the breezy tone can at times be off-putting—the reader is asked to spend the majority of the experience listening to a bunch of people talk to one another and crack jokes, although they’re not all engaging people, and there jokes aren’t always funny, so as intimate as it may feel, sometimes it seems like you’re at a kinda boring party. There’s a rather strange epilogue too, which seems a little too grafted on, and may leave some readers wondering what it’s even doing there.
Of course this is comics, so whatever imperfections there are in the story, The Downsized doesn’t rely merely on the narrative content, but features art as well, and that is always amazing. Comics readers who are most interested in that aspect of the medium, and the alchemy that occurs between the verbal and the visual, should be particularly interested in this book, if not flat out fascinated with it. Howarth’s art is easy to read and enjoy, and worthy of close reading, appreciation and even study.