Top Ten Breakup Comics

A column article, Top Ten by: Nick Hanover

We can probably all agree that breakups are fucking awful, no matter which divide of the dumper/dumpee divide you're on. So it's not very surprising that so much art centers around love gone wrong. There's something exhilarating about working through your problems through creative expression and there's likewise something comforting about digesting those expressions and filtering your own experiences through them.

Music may have a near monopoly on this symbiotic relationship between consumer and artist-- hell, the high water mark of this enterprise is High Fidelity, which began life as a book devoted to the subject before becoming a movie devoted to it, cementing its status as a devourer of pop culture across all mediums-- but comics are a sadly overlooked utopia of art as romantic salve.

Because I myself am freshly dumped, I've decided to rectify this and offer up a mixtape of break-up comics, a mixture of old standbys and newly relevant works, books that can help you move on or help you feel not quite so alone in your misery, that can reassure that you can recover or that better things lie ahead.


 

10. Put the Book Back on the Shelf

Various Writers/Artists

Why let High Fidelity hog all the cross-cultural fun? As the original sad bastard music progenitors, Belle & Sebastian are practically a necessity on any indie kid's breakup mixtape, which makes Image Comics' graphic novel tribute to the group an obvious choice for any respectable list about breakup comics. But there's more than gimmickry at play here, as the collection featured such indie darlings as Rick Remender and David Lasky providing unique interpretations of classic Belle & Sebastian tracks. That it can be read along with a soundtrack makes it a double whammy, adding an additional element to comics' standard words + images. 


 

09. David Chelsea in Love

Written & Illustrated by David Chelsea

David Chelsea's autobiographical work David Chelsea in Love may seem bluntly titled, but what's contained within is a complicated mess of doomed love, awkward health issues (by which I mean crabs) and forced maturation. Through the lens of hindsight, Chelsea is able to more or less laugh about a pretty depressing part of his life, where he committed an incredible amount of time to a woman who was wrong for him in seemingly every possible way, but that's the beauty of it. If David Chelsea can emerge all the better from a hellish romantic scenario complete with forced polygamy and the aforementioned crabs, then you can almost certainly emerge from your break-up intact and perhaps even improved.


 

08. Preacher

Written by Garth Ennis

Illustrated by Steve Dillon

Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's epic Preacher isn't the type of work that fits easily into a single category, but at its heart it's basically a love story, albeit one with apocalyptic overtones and immense religious conflict. Jesse Custer and Tulip O'Hare are the couple at the center of the epic, and despite the world shattering situation they're immersed in, the real appeal of the story is how their relationship rises and falls and rises and falls and on and on. When the series starts, they're long broken up but they're soon reunited, only to be continuously tested and antagonized, and their ongoing struggles, romantically and otherwise, frame the story.

Preacher succeeds in part because it shows how love can be all-consuming for those situated within it, but also because despite the fantasy of the surroundings, it's often incredibly realistic in its depiction of how relationships often defy logic. Jesse and Tulip fuck up royally and often, but they always find each other, overcoming all odds. Preacher has plenty of bleak moments but it's impressively optimistic about love, showing that endings aren't necessarily final and that occasionally there is hope for love to come through and reunited those once separated.


 

07. Paying for It

Written and Illustrated by Chester Brown

And of course, on the other end of the spectrum is Chester Brown's Paying for It, which puts forth the notion that romantic love is itself a doomed prospect. Paying for It is Brown's magnum opus on the subject of love and sex, an argument for the benefits of sex work and separating the physical from the emotional. Frank about his own shortcomings, Brown may have crafted one of the most unflinchingly honest autobiographical comics in history and depending on your mood and situation it can at times seem condescending or right on target or even both at once. But when you're feeling like romance has failed you and that there is no such thing as a happy relationship, that everything that seems happy and good is only a moment away from becoming permanently broken, there's something to be said for Brown's fierce refusal of the entire enterprise of love. 


 

06. Black Hole

Written and Illustrated by Charles Burns

Charles Burns' masterpiece Black Hole isn't a breakup story so much as it's a comic devoted to the feeling of loneliness and isolation. Depicting an alternate reality mid-'70s Seattle where a strange STD that causes teenagers to turn into mutants is becoming an epidemic, Black Hole is structured around several relationships, specifically featuring Chris and Keith, two marginalized teens. Both Chris and Keith wind up literally scarred and permanently altered by their lovers, with the two unwittingly catching "the Bug" from people they trusted. As much as Black Hole is about the entire teenage experience, it's just as easily an examination of the havoc a botched relationship can wreak on your life, no matter its longevity. Burns doesn't shy away from painting a bleak portrait of love, but he ultimately leaves his characters' fates open ended, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps and thus providing ample room for one's own experiences to be inserted into the narrative.


 

05. David Boring

Written and Illustrated by Daniel Clowes

There's something inherently surreal about that period directly after a break-up. You're confused about how to proceed and you can't help but feel like bad things are piling up. But in David Boring, Daniel Clowes runs the titular character through an impressive gauntlet of Bad Shit that mostly comes as a result of his doomed relationship with a woman named Wanda. When Wanda leaves David, he becomes incredibly depressed and is shot and left for dead by one of her former lovers. For most of us, that'd be an insane development but for David it's almost an inevitability, just another bit of insanity in his dream logic filled every day life.

The shooting also leads to an epiphany of sorts for David, as his shooter is one of Wanda's former flames and together they seek her out. For David, this journey leads to him meeting her sister, who looks eerily similar, perpetuating the circular nature of David's particular romantic problem, which is his inability to move past an attraction from his past. Despite the weirdness of the story, David Boring is nonetheless immensely relatable, with Clowes utilizing the story as commentary on how we can't help but be attracted to certain types of people, despite how often that gets us hurt. David Boring's constant hurt, both physical and emotional, may be extreme but it represents how our emotions aren't logical or tidy and that it's not a matter of shutting them down, but moving on until we find the right representation of our desires, that one person who makes all the previous hurt and fumbling worthwhile.


 

04. Young Liars

Written and Illustrated by David Lapham

Love can be an insane state, something that causes you to lose inhibitions and act like an idiot. But with Young Liars, David Lapham takes that notion even further, detailing the immensely complicated relationship between Sadie and Danny, the former being a former heiress turned uninhibited lunatic after being shot in the head and the latter being the boy who loves her a little too much and in all the wrong ways. Like some fucked up combination of Sid and Nancy and Bonnie and Clyde and every other crazy coupling throughout history, Sadie and Danny are both right and wrong for each other, pushing one another to dangerous extremes and bringing out all their worst qualities. 

Most of us have been in relationships that are like Sadie and Danny's in miniature, where you can't help but love someone you know is completely wrong for you and quite possibly a danger to your health. In the moment you may not be completely cognizant of that fact but you suspect it nonetheless, and afterwards you're left examining some smoldering ruins and wondering just what the fuck happened. But Young Liars also has a twist at its center that forces you to think about how responsible you are for all that ruination, about how maybe you were the one to pull the trigger and what that might say about you. Call it a nasty piece of medicine, but you can't ignore its effectiveness.


 

03. Blankets

Written and Illustrated by Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson's breakout work Blankets may be simple in concept -- it's essentially the story of Thompson's journey into adulthood, specifically focusing on his first major relationship -- but it's one of the most evocative coming of age stories in any medium in recent history. Most of that is due to the clear passion Thompson puts into the work, with its beautiful imagery and touching depiction of his first love, despite his recognition of all the flaws of that relationship. Thompson avoids coating that portion of his life in nostalgia, instead showing exactly how he connected with his first love while at a religious camp and then detailing exactly what caused their love to come apart. Thompson's stunning artwork functions as more than just an illustration of the events, it also provides insight into Thompson's emotions in a way that words could not, with myriad levels of symbolism and iconography that offer glimpses at the incommunicable feelings Thompson associates with the time. Blankets may not be the happiest story, but Thompson's depiction of his experience is comforting in how it shows even the tragedies in our lives build our identities. Sometimes happy endings aren't what you need and instead you just need to be shown that there is strength in simply moving on and learning.


 

02. Y: The Last Man

Written by Brian K. Vaughan

Illustrated by Pia Guerra

Like Preacher, Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra's Y: The Last Man is an epic apocalyptic series with a love story at its center. But in the case of Y: The Last Man, that love story ultimately features nothing but tragedy. From its start, Y: The Last Man appears to be the tale of Yorick Brown and his attempts to reunite with his fiancee, with one small little catch: Yorick and his pet monkey Ampersand happen to be the only surviving males on the planet. Of course, nothing is ever simple and Y: The Last Man blooms into a far more complicated story than even that synopsis indicates, one concerning how what we think want and what we actually want can be revealed to be far different things. Even more than natural disasters, far reaching epidemics and war, love is a force that is inexplicable and unforgiving, something that shifts with no notice and ultimately victimizes everyone at some point or another. For Yorick that realization comes with truly tragic consequences and the payoff of the story is the gut wrenching feeling we get as readers when we witness Yorick's experience. Y: The Last Man's ending may be incredibly bittersweet, but it forces you to focus on the value of good memories, even if things didn't work out quite the way you wanted.


 

01. Scott Pilgrim

Written and Illustrated by Bryan Lee O'Malley

If Y: The Last Man functions as the ultimate tragic love story of this list, then Scott Pilgrim is its more optimistic foil. Bryan Lee O'Malley's series about a young slacker trying to overcome his new flame's evil exes is a masterclass in how to pack a whole lot of substance into a tiny package. Scott Pilgrim is also conveniently relevant no matter where you're situated in love. Those in new relationships can appreciate the message of accepting a partner's baggage no matter how difficult that might seem, while those who find themselves newly single can appreciate and sympathize with the "evil exes," as it's easy to understand the desire to target an ex's new significant others. At one point or another, most of have probably been an evil ex, or have been in Scott Pilgrim's shoes, or Ramona Flowers', or Knives Chau's, and therein lies Scott Pilgrim's appeal. By packaging the story in deceptively simple language and symbolism, O'Malley has concocted a story that just gets to the heart of multiple facets of being in and out of love.  And because of that universality, Scott Pilgrim is the ultimate breakup comic, an expression of the feeling of victimhood and scorn that comes from being on the receiving end and a quirky depiction of what it's like to be back in a relationship and discovering the details of your new partners past loves and their own experiences being on either side of the coin.

 


 

When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.

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