When your only friend calls you “fatso,” it might be time to reconsider your friendship.
Greg Cook’s darkly funny graphic novel “Friends is Friends” (published by First Second Books) examines the perils of a relationship many take for granted once the social gauntlet of adolescence has passed. The animal characters who populate Cook’s world strike up friendships on a dime and betray each other just as quickly. They are, by and large, a surly, morose and fractious group. The comedy, which usually stems from conflict, can be biting, but amid the bickering and name-calling, Cook weaves threads of sweetness and support.
The melancholy tone and the dejected characters come as no surprise from the artist and writer (and arts reporter and critic for The ARTery), who organized "The Saddest Parade on Earth" and last year’s "Pity Party" in Somerville’s Union Square.
Although he’s been penning comics for years, this is only Cook’s second graphic novel. The first, "Catch as Catch Can" (Highwater Books), which came out in 2001, told the story of a gingerbread man/ice cream truck driver on the lam. "Friends is Friends" makes callbacks to that book, placing it in the same brooding, somewhat daffy universe.
Cook declines to pin down where or when his plot unfolds, but there are no phones and no televisions. He offers a clue with his main character, the elephant Critter, a hobo who fits the Depression-era stereotype, riding the rails and carrying a pack on a stick.
It also hilariously nods to "Frosty the Snowman," when Frosty’s doppelgänger, Freezee, and a crowd of joyous children heedlessly wreak damage as they prance through the streets. Cook’s style is more “Krazy Kat” than Rankin/Bass Productions, though. His gritty characters recall the expressive and ornery animals in George Herriman’s legendary early 20th-century comic strip — not to mention their nervy tango of affection and assault.
The art, inked with juicy contours, expertly conveys the mournful and enraged expressions on the characters' faces with just a few lines. The text in the word balloons is also throwback: Handwritten with curlicues and serifs, it looks at once scruffy and ornate.
So does Critter, who wears a ragged top hat and a patched-up suit with a bow tie. He’s not just down on his luck, he’s a whiskey-slugging crank. But, he, as we all do, longs for connection: After Will, a piglet on a scooter, strikes up a conversation and offers Critter a Blow Pop, Critter declares, “you know, buddy, you’re my only friend.”
A Blow Pop may be a lot to base a friendship on so quickly, but every relationship is a gamble. It gives little away to reveal that Will ends up calling Critter “fatso” and kicking him in the face.
Cook structures “Friends is Friends” as a round-robin of scenes, most of them spotlighting relationships between two characters. Will’s pugnacious friend Ted, a bear in a diaper, shows up. So does his sister Anastasia, a badass in a polka dot dress. Critter shares his bottle with her. The only character who doesn’t disappoint someone else is a ghost, a nebulous figure at best and possibly a liar — still, it’s easier to be friends with a ghost, who may after all just be your own projection or memory, than with someone in the flesh.
The book spirals from scene to scene. The jump cuts can seem abrupt, but the deeper you go, the more little details circle back and tie it all together. The very heart of the story turns out to have a touch of romance — albeit tinged by infidelity, because no relationship in “Friends is Friends” is simple.
Fights, taunting and betrayal may be the plot points around which “Friends is Friends” pivots, but warmth, generosity and collaboration provide the book’s bedrock. We can always hope for connection, and for all its shadows, “Friends is Friends” is lit with that hope.
Greg Cook will be appearing at Ada Books in Providence on Saturday, Sept. 24, at 6 p.m.
Cate McQuaid is a freelance writer and art critic. She covers galleries for the Boston Globe.