"In" is a gorgeous graphic novel about trying to find genuine human connections

I miss people.

I like being around people, but I'm not always great at actually socializing with them. I hover around the edges of the room, unsure of what to do, heart racing with every missed opportunity for a conversational entrance. But when I finally take that entrance? I nail it. I can be almost overwhelmingly effusive. Once I find that thing to talk about or relate to, I can charm or annoy the hell out of you. Getting to that point, however, could be difficult. Because people also tend to fill me with anxiety (even before the knowledge that our shared indoor breathing could kill us both).

This is not so different from the struggle portrayed in In, a new graphic novel from acclaimed New Yorker cartoonist Will McPhail. Even if you didn't vacillate between the extremes of awkward small talk and gushing confessional verbosity in The Before Times, the journey depicted in these gorgeously illustrated pages will resonate with you as you start to spend more time around people again, after 16 months of (probably) deliberately avoiding strangers and minimizing every potential human encounter. Here's the official synopsis:

A poignant and witty graphic novel by a leading New Yorker cartoonist, following a millennial's journey from performing his life to truly connecting with people.

Nick, a young illustrator, can't shake the feeling that there is some hidden realm of human interaction beyond his reach. He haunts lookalike fussy, silly, coffee shops, listens to old Joni Mitchell albums too loudly, and stares at his navel in the hope that he will find it in there. But it isn't until he learns to speak from the heart that he begins to find authentic human connections and is let in—to the worlds of the people he meets. Nick's journey occurs alongside the beginnings of a relationship with Wren, a wry, spirited oncologist at a nearby hospital, whose work and life becomes painfully tangled with Nick's.

Illustrated in both color and black-and-white in McPhail's instantly recognizable style, In elevates the graphic novel genre; it captures his trademark humor and compassion with a semi-autobiographical tale that is equal parts hilarious and heart-wrenching—uncannily appropriate for our isolated times.

In excels at depicting the small, quiet moments of every day life, but it really shines when it centers on the anticipation, and elation, of genuine human connections. The bulk of the graphic novel consists of simple black-and-white line art — in a very meta-moment, you realize that McPhail's artwork is a cleaned up version of the sketches that the protagonist Nick makes while he rides the subway or sits alone at a bar waiting for someone to interact with him (as someone who spent a lot of time writing alone at bars in the Before Times, I found this painfully relatable).

But the art changes dramatically each time Nick breaks through and shares a moment with another person. The pages explode in luscious watercolors full of divine tapestries and heavenly landscapes that bloom from the characters' hearts. To call these pages "abstract" would be an injustice; they're more like poetry, using imagery to convey the splendor of a human experience that otherwise evades a literal description.

Of course, some of these beautifully rendered moments can also be terrifying — because sometimes, when you break through someone else's armor, you find something that you're not ready to handle. For Nick, this can be the monsters in his nephew's dreams, or a powerfully personal moment in a hospital. Plot-wise, the story deals largely with a one-night stand, and Nick's struggle to see his mother as a fully-fleshed out person, who exists beyond her function to him as a mother (yes, the sex-and-mom plots weave together, though not at all the way you'd expect). The dialogue, though sparse, is realistic and powerful — a resonant reminder of just how simple and awkward so many of our social interactions tend to be.

That being said, Nick's internal observations of modern urban living can be delightfully hilarious.

On multiple occasions, In both moved me to tears, and made me literally laugh-out-loud awkwardly enough that I had to then struggle to explain to my wife why it's funny that there's a guy drawing a dick in this comic book I'm reading. Perhaps what's most remarkable about the graphic novel, though, is how much Nick's anxious struggles made me appreciate, and long for, the not-too-distant future where I might also have those awkward moments with strangers at a bar, terrified yet hoping that our small talk might yet explode into a luscious water cooler abstraction of genuine connection.

That alone made the whole book worth it.

In: A Graphic Novel [Will McPhail]