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#81 [May. 12th, 2008|06:05 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#81 DEATH NOTE – Tsugumi Ohba, Takeshi Obata
(Shonen Jump)


“I’ll make this a world inhabited only by people I decide are good!”

Death Note is a series that defies your expectations at every turn. It’s a story about a high-school boy who finds a book that kills people when he writes their names in it, but instead of killing off the teacher he hates or the kid who picks on him or something similarly obvious, he calmly and rationally realises the death note is a weapon capable of changing the world and sets out to do just that. High-achieving model teenager Light Yagami fixes a corrupt and criminal world screwed up by adults using his bullets made of ink with barely an emotion beyond an occasional grin or drop of sweat ever betrayed by his face. Light is essentially a sociopath, though sometimes a sympathetic one. Another writer probably would have made the detective tracking him down – an eccentric and secretive genius known only by his code-name of ‘L’ and therefore safe from the death note – into the protagonist, but things are much more interesting seen through Light’s cold eyes.

Much of the action, such as it is, is based on Light and L’s attempts to outwit each other, like an epic game of cat-and-mouse or chess. Essentially, they think about each other really hard for pages at time. It’s difficult to explain just how gripping it can be reading two people narrating about their plots, trying to anticipate every move their opponent is about to make as well as anticipating the rival’s anticipating, but the suspense works despite some moments of clumsiness in the translation.

Standing in for the reader in this showdown is Ryuk, an easily bored god of death responsible for leaving the death note where Light would find it. Obata draws him as a lanky, bug-eyed punk brute. Invisible to most of the characters, he leers over their shoulders and flies above them peering down with interest, as much a voyeur as we are.

While Ryuk chuckles at what fools these mortals be and the rest of the cast drowns in buckets of their own anxious sweat drops, Light remains eerily calm at the centre of the storm he has created. At every step along the way he has a justification and a rationalisation for his actions, for literally playing God. Resisting the obvious route again, there are no real answers provided to the moral quandaries raised by Death Note’s themes, however. It’s shamelessly entertaining instead of moralising and because of that the questions it asks about corruption and responsibility linger for longer.
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#82 [Apr. 27th, 2008|04:19 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#82 TANK GIRL BOOK 1 – Jamie Hewlett, Alan Martin
(Deadline/Dark Horse)


“We’re nasty and we smell!”

Jamie Hewlett’s lewd and anarchic artwork is what takes Tank Girl from fanzine-level toilet humour and elevates it to the most delirious heights of absurdism. The tanks rumbling down the vertical cliffs of a post-apocalyptic Australia where everyone’s obsessed with the minutiae of British pop culture; the mutant kangaroos with crooked sunglasses and tongues lolling as they rampage through a barbecue; the tattoo of a young and virile Tom Waits smoking a cigarette on the Devil’s bicep; little details like R.E.M. lyrics on a gun holster and a Nick Cave quote around a panel border. Most of all Tank Girl herself, punk-haired and heroically grotty, leering at kangaroo men, flashing her bra and hefting guns and missiles – not to mention the militarised mammaries – so over-sized only boys who read too much Judge Dredd at an impressionable age could have imagined them.

Like Mad Max with oestrogen poisoning, Tank Girl stalks and demolishes her way through a vague setting Hewlett and Martin are clearly making up as they go along based on an Australia they’ve seen in a couple of movies at most (halfway through they learn how to spell Sydney right, but they never figure out Skippy doesn’t have an E in his name). The writing, such as it is, reads like a drunken conversation between the two of them. “Let’s kick off with a bit of violence!” says Martin, to which Hewlett replies with bodies crushed by tanks screaming “Yaa burssst!” and “Arrrgh splat!”

Although Hewlett’s capable of dazzling displays of technical virtuosity, he doesn’t spend a lot of time showing off his chops in Tank Girl. That would be missing the point. Focussed outbursts of mad passion with no regard for the more finicky details of actual craft and composition are what it’s all about. Tank Girl is as punk as a comic can be.
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#83 [Apr. 24th, 2008|12:50 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#83 SQUEE! – Jhonen Vasquez
(Slave Labor Graphics)


“I think there’s something wrong with this world.”

While Yotsuba&! reminds us how full of wonder the world is when seen through a child’s eyes, Squee! exists to remind us how full of terror it is. The title character’s life is so full of things he can only react to with a horrified, beheaded squeak that it’s become his nickname. Everybody wants to dissect him, eat him, bully him, haunt him or turn him to the dark side, except for his parents who barely remember he exists. Everything you hid from behind the couch or under the blankets torments Squee and it’s hilarious. It’s not a nice kind of comedy – it’s as black as Jhonen Vasquez’s gothic sense of atmosphere and style – but it sure is funny. Squee’s bug-eyed shock and pain, his mother’s heavily medicated absentness, his father’s rambling explanations of why Squee has ruined his life and the vile ineptitude of the various monsters and authority figures who bedevil the boy are depicted with a class clown’s panache and gift for impersonations.

As if that’s not enough, Vasquez provides us with more doomed schadenfreude objects to amuse us with their suffering in the backup strips. There’s Wobbly Headed Bob who knows that sadness is just joy for deep people, an insane stick figure named Happy Noodle Boy and Filler Bunny, who is forced to fill the in-between pages with endless cheery dances for our amusement while begging for the sweet release of death.

Whenever the valve inside Jhonen Vasquez’s head needs to be opened and the madness purged, he creates another cartoon character to torture. If he did these things in the real world, to real rabbits or children – exploding heads, needle stabbings, dog maulings – he’d be locked up. Because it happens on the page, he’s a comic genius. Every time the world’s corruption and broken education systems and bad Hollywood movies makes the black ink boil in Vasquez’s brain, we reap the benefits.
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#84 [Apr. 19th, 2008|12:16 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#84 THE SANDMAN #25 – Neil Gaiman, Matt Wagner
(Vertigo)


“I think it was a dream. But it seemed so real. Like I was really there.”

The Sandman is a story about stories and it tells tales that often involve the title character, who is the King of Dreams, only tangentially. Instead he becomes a platform from which Neil Gaiman launches tales in different genres, just like the old DC anthology books he references by bringing their spooky hosts back from their graves in supporting roles. These substories take a variety of forms, whether daring tales of swashbuckling and derring-do, big fish stories or, as in this case, nightmares.

Issue 25 is a school story in the tradition of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Saint Hilarion’s School For Boys is a boarding school founded for the sons of soldiers, where Charles Rowland spends his holidays while the other boys are off with their families. He isn’t alone, however. As well as the doddering adults who run the school, the ghosts of boys who lived and studied there before him walk the halls. By crossing the school story with the ghost story, another classic archetypal plot we all know well, it perfectly captures the awfulness of being trapped at school and the casual, meaningless cruelty of children

In a story about a haunted school with cameos from a couple of immortals who personify abstract concepts, Gaiman manages to tell one of the most honest stories about bullying you're likely to read. The adults are revealed to be useless and as faintly mad as they seem when you’re young, the literally untouchable bullies aren’t going to back down as soon as someone stands up to them and the only thing left to do is grow up and move on – though not in the way you expect. This is still a ghost story after all and ghost stories do not usually end with everybody maturing into perfectly well-adjusted gentlemen and living happily ever after.

This nightmare of a school has as much truth in it as a waking version would. The Sandman exists to remind us that the dreams of things can be just as important as the things themselves.
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#85 [Apr. 14th, 2008|08:04 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#85 HELLBOY: THE CHAINED COFFIN AND OTHERS – Mike Mignola
(Dark Horse)


“Worked great on the giant vampire cat of Kyoto. Thing is ... this is a giant pig-man situation.”

Hellboy is a monster who plays the part of the hero to counter the fact that he’s a big red guy with stumps on his head where the devil horns should be. When he shows up to help innocent people who are being troubled by unstoppable supernatural forces, those people never seem to be nearly as bothered by his nature as he is. In the stories that delve into the character’s backstory and epic destiny and yadda yadda, Hellboy rejects his responsibilities as an agent of the bad guys to the point of snapping the horns right off his head. That thematic underpinning isn’t the main point of the best Hellboy stories – short adventure yarns about whatever semi-obscure legends Mike Mignola’s been reading recently – but it lends an interesting subtext to them.

The stories collected in The Chained Coffin And Others are excellent examples of this kind of story. While the antagonists and allies and exotic locations differ, the basic plots are built on the same frame: Hellboy uncovers something strange and malevolent, smashes through some gorgeously inked architecture and punches mythology right in its face, preferably while saying something witty. It’s not complicated, but it works.

There are two things that make it work. One is that gorgeousness I just mentioned. Mignola works heavily with flat, pure black inks, filling his churches and castles with ominous shadows that spread to every crease and fold of the characters who inhabit them. Spooky statues, bones and broken masonry are everywhere Hellboy goes, whether it’s the Balkans, Ireland or East Bromwich. A debt to Jack Kirby is clear in panels with Hellboy and his opponents flinging each other around and through this scenery with plenty of Sturm und Drang and BOOM and KRASH.

The other thing that makes it work is Mignola’s approach to the folklore he borrows from. While retelling the stories, he preserves some of their stranger quirks, whether it’s talking animals and communicative corpses, bouncing standing stones, the Redcap’s ridiculous iron shoes or Baba Yaga’s obsession with counting spoons. Told at full speed a-pulp, this cavalcade of oddities flying by adds up to a general sense of luscious fairytale eerieness, which is the one place in the world where the big red guy seems to be perfectly at home.
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#86 [Mar. 27th, 2008|04:08 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#86 ENIGMA – Peter Milligan, Duncan Fegredo
(Vertigo)


“I mean, you didn’t just think, hey! I’m gonna base my life on this comic book.”

Enigma is very much a post-Watchmen superhero comic. It’s revisionist, it raises questions about the sexuality of people who fight crime in fetish outfits, it features a comic within a comic and it stars a character whose godlike abilities distance him from humanity. The ways that it overcomes the debt of those similarities, avoiding the pitfalls of rehashing ideas that had already been very thoroughly hashed, are what makes it an entirely worthwhile read.

Compared to Watchmen and many of the superhero stories that followed it, Enigma is a much more playful work. It’s drawn with a free and loose hand by Duncan Fegredo, who improves his sketchy style dramatically over its course, depicting extravagant villains like The Interior League, who drive their victims mad by rearranging their furniture in unthinkable combinations while they sleep, and Envelope Girl, who wraps people in her stamp-covered cape and teleports them across the country inside boxes marked ‘This side up’. To add emphasis to the oddity, a mysterious and cynical narrator observes it all with disdain, the captions weighed down with sarcasm.

In contrast with the colourful supercharacters is the protagonist, Michael Smith, a man so normal it’s unusual. He lives his life by a schedule specific enough to dictate he has sex only on Tuesdays. Michael’s quest to seek out the Enigma, a comic-book character he was obsessed with as a child who has turned out to be real, takes an unexpected twist when he realises he’s in love with the guy. A fanboy’s obsession with his favourite superhero has never been summed up so succinctly. Michael’s realisation of his homosexuality is handled with a surprisingly deft and sensitive touch despite the surrounding bizarreness of the story.

Ultimately, Enigma is suitably ambiguous, circling around its subjects without interrogating them to make points. Rather than resolution, it presents only another enigma, but it’s one you’ll be thinking about long after the end.
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#87 [Mar. 19th, 2008|02:41 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#87 UNDERSTANDING COMICS - Scott McCloud
(Tundra/Kitchen Sink)


“Here’s to the great debate!”

Scott McCloud loves comics with an infectious glee. He also loves historical research, making definitions and analysing motives. Fortunately, the glee washes away any dryness that might come with the intellectualising. Understanding Comics may be a weighty analysis of the form, but it feels lighter than it should because of the way McCloud uses the form to discuss itself. It’s a comic about comics. McCloud, drawn with cartoon simplicity, wanders across the page from sight-gag to sight-gag, deconstructing as he goes.

By presenting himself as a cartoon, McCloud is trying to prevent the specifics of who he is from getting in the way of his arguments, reducing himself down to a sigil that won’t filter the ideas as they follow a pipeline direct from his brain to the reader’s. In practice it can be a little like being lectured to by Bugs Bunny, but it’s good to know he doesn’t take himself too seriously since sometimes the ideas he’s shoving into that pipeline can be difficult to take seriously as well.

Whether he’s arguing that the greatest panels should stand alone or coming up with a definition of comics broad enough to include stained-glass windows but too narrow to fit The Far Side, McCloud will make you want to argue with him at some point. The contentious nature of Understanding Comics is part of what makes it so worthwhile. Debating with McCloud in your head, whether about comics or his more general ruminations on art history and the motives for creativity, will blow out cobwebs you didn’t know were there. If he was less enthusiastic he might be less quarrelsome, but the contagious passion that emanates from the pages more than makes up for it.
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#88 [Mar. 10th, 2008|04:13 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#88 YOTSUBA&! – Kiyohiko Azuma
(ADV Manga)


“It's sunny!”

Whether they’re manipulating their cynical parents into finding love again or foiling bands of smugglers hiding at Pirate’s Cove, wise children are common in fiction. Yotsuba is not one of those wise children. She’s so naïve ordinary objects like swings sometimes confuse her, she throws tantrums, lies often and badly, will happily watch the same video 20 times and is in some ways a genuine five-year-old girl. This is no hard-edged story of earnest realism, however. Each Yotsuba&! story centres on something new that she discovers, like ‘Yotsuba & Cicadas!’ or ‘Yotsuba & Moving!’ Every time, a mundane object or event is transformed into something delightful by her wide-eyed wonder.

Yotsuba is in fact so wide-eyed you could fit three pupils in there. Kiyohiko Azuma draws typically big-eyed manga with mouths that are alternately tiny and huge, non-existent noses and maximum cuteness. Yotsbuba&! is in fact the distilled essence of cuteness; kittens multiplied by puppies times a thousand. It’s so full of optimism and exuberance you could can it and make an energy drink that cures depression. Even the grumpiest old get-off-my-lawn should be charmed by Yotsuba stalking her neighbours with a water pistol, reciting jumbled and misunderstood versions of action-movie dialogue like “Even if they kill me I will make it back in one piece!” and “You must be tired of livin'” before shooting them.

The story trundles along day by day through a summer holiday that seems as endless as they do when you’re a kid. Although there are brief shadows around the edges, like the question of what happened to her biological parents (she's adopted) and her bizarre phobias (air conditioning, things that resemble eyes), sunshine practically radiates off the page. It’s so bright it might make you squint, but it’s also guaranteed to leave you grinning like an idiot.


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That one managed to come in close to the magazine's word limit. This is what the Watchmen piece looked like after I'd done the same with it. It might actually be better, I dunno.

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WATCHMEN – Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons
(DC Comics)


“Did the costumes make it good?”

Watchmen is such a dense, layered work it’s tempting to reduce it to one of its main elements and say, “This is what Watchmen is.” Most obviously, it’s a deconstruction of superheroes, taking archetypal characters and asking hard questions about them. Whether it’s their politics, sanity or sexuality, the series doesn’t flinch in its answers. After reading Watchmen it’s difficult not to measure other superhero comics against it and find them lacking. It’s also a parable about doomsday paranoia, showing an alternate 1985 in which America’s ownership of the Übermensch doesn’t stop fear of nuclear Armageddon driving the country crazy. In some ways it seems eerily prescient. Replace the Communists with terrorists and it could be set today. Finally, it’s a bold experiment with the structure of comics, an interconnected self-referential hall of mirrors it’s easy to get lost in. The words and pictures often become unfixed, the writing going in one direction while Gibbons’ clear and detailed artwork describes parallel events, milking the connections between them for every drop of irony they’re worth.

All that experimental trickery, apocalyptic mood and fulfilment of the genre’s promise aside, it’s another element of Watchmen that earns it the status of a masterpiece. The most memorable chapters are the most human. A psychiatrist tries to understand a madman, but risks losing his own sanity. An ordinary woman tries to convince a distant and uncaring God that people matter. A man reflects on his life. Two people fall in love. Beyond the heroics, underneath the masks, Watchmen is about ordinary people trying to come to terms with an extraordinary world. Just like us.
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#89 [Mar. 7th, 2008|09:52 am]
jody_macgregor
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Up until now I've been trying to do these to the 250-word limit Rave magazine asked for and frequently failing. From now on, the magazine version of this list and the one you're reading here are going to diverge. I'm letting someone else take over the magazine version for a while, while I bust open the word count to ramble at length in this version. Whether it'll be worth it I'm not sure -- maybe the word limit forced me to get to the point? But we'll see. Anyway, I knew I'd need more than 250 words to do this one.

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#89 WATCHMEN – Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons
(DC Comics)


“But the world is so full of people, so crowded with miracles that they become commonplace and we forget...”

Watchmen is such a dense, layered work that it’s tempting to reduce it to one of its main elements and say, “This is what Watchmen is.” Whether seen as a work of superhero deconstruction, a parable about doomsday paranoia or a bold experiment with the structure of comic books, each of these views shows only a part of a greater whole.

“Did the costumes make it good?”

As a superhero comic, arguably the best of its kind, Watchmen is Moore and Gibbons’ attempt at imagining what effect a bunch of Americans putting on masks to save the world might actually have. Originally, they’d planned to tell the story with a group of existing second-string heroes – first the Archie Comics heroes, then Charlton’s characters – but when DC discovered just how far they were planning to take the realism of their portrayal, the publisher balked and asked for original characters. This accidental godsend forced them to boil down these characters, who were admittedly not that original to begin with, to their archetypes. They created a cast who were instantly familiar, but taken to natural extremes – the grim vigilante a right-wing conspiracy nut; the Übermensch so superior he becomes disconnected – and asked the kind of questions of them ordinary people would. Is this the kind of thing mentally stable people do? What would America be like, politically, if they had a superman on their side? How would the police feel about people in masks doing their job? Do the kinky outfits suggest something about their sex lives? Would kids read superhero comics if they could see what the real thing was like? Who watches the watchmen? Answering these questions in believable ways, they left little room for others to ask anything else of the genre. After reading Watchmen it’s difficult not to measure other superhero comics against it and find them lacking.

“We oughta nuke ‘em till they glow!”

Although the 1985 of Watchmen’s setting diverges from history, mainly due to the influence of an American Übermensch, it’s still defined by Cold War end-of-the-world paranoia. The dread of the future and the corresponding belief that nothing matters since the nukes might fly tomorrow underlies all of Watchmen’s action. In some ways it seems eerily prescient. Replace the Communists with terrorists and their fears become the fears of our times and their reactions and over-reactions could be ours. It’s not an act of fortune telling on Moore’s part however, but an understanding of human nature and how we react to perceived threats. History repeats because of how slowly we change and our fears of nuclear Armageddon, the Y2K bug, biological weapons or bird flu all drive us to equal foolishness. In the face of impending apocalypse, we’re all idiots together.

“’Cause they don’t make sense, man! That’s why I gotta read ’em over.”

The formalist elements of Watchmen demand a second reading to fully appreciate, but like any good modernists, Moore and Gibbons layered their creation to make it worth returning to. The book reflects itself repeatedly, scenes connecting in a way that forces constant re-evaluation as different lights are shone on them. The words and pictures often become unfixed, the writing going in one direction while Gibbons’ clear and detailed artwork describes parallel events, milking the connections between them for every drop of irony they’re worth. Panels either side of a transition mirror each other in some way. All of the 12 issues begin and end on similar images, as does the story as a whole. Issue five is laid out symmetrically. Motifs recur, gaining significance through every repetition, so that by the end it’s impossible to ever look at a symbol as simple as the smiley face in the same way again. Structurally, Watchmen’s almost perfect; a crystalline hall of mirrors it’s easy to get lost in. It exploits the medium in ways no one else had before and precious few have since.

“It’s us. Only us.”

All that experimental trickery, apocalyptic mood and fulfilment of the genre’s promise aside, it’s another element of Watchmen that earns it the status of a masterpiece. The most memorable chapters are the most human. A psychiatrist tries to understand a madman, but risks losing his own sanity. An ordinary woman tries to convince a distant and uncaring God that people matter. A man reflects on his life. Two people fall in love. Beyond the heroics, underneath the masks, Watchmen is about ordinary people trying to come to terms with an extraordinary world. Just like us.
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#90 [Mar. 4th, 2008|02:09 pm]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#90 JIMMY CORRIGAN, THE SMARTEST KID ON EARTH – Chris Ware
(Pantheon)


“Most of the purchasers of this book, however, are likely sexually confident, attractive go-getters for whom grief is merely an abstraction, or, at worst, an annoyance treatable by expensive medication.”

Jimmy Corrigan opens with a bit of cheekiness straight from the Dave Eggers playbook – instructions for reading comics aimed at those unfamiliar with this apparently dying and irrelevant artform, written in Chris Ware’s self-deprecating authorial voice. The jokey instructions provide one last laugh, like a condemned man’s final cigarette, before beginning a story that’s a journey through other people’s misery where the only laughter is nervous or forced.

Jimmy’s no smartest kid on earth, but instead a hopeless manboy loser with no social skills to speak of who barely speaks himself. Most of the story centres on his reunion with his estranged father, seen in awkward and painfully truthful scenes broken by Jimmy’s fantasies of companionship and competence in which he’s a robot or a child genius or in love – each seeming just as impossible – as well as flashbacks to the complicated Corrigan family history.

Unusually, Ware uses space rather than lines for expression. The characters are uniformly rounded and blunt, while the layouts are imaginative and characterful. Jimmy’s loneliness makes him unable to take up more than about half a panel; he’s often surrounded by alienating emptiness and when he does share a panel with someone their face is usually obscured. The one exception is Jimmy’s father, whose clumsy attempts to belatedly bond with his grown-up son allow him to muscle his face into frame.

The subject matter isn’t cheerful and there are times where the casual depiction of people’s cruelty to outsiders can be excruciating and difficult to read, but like a good blues song it’s ultimately uplifting. The frank and powerful depiction of loneliness makes you want to reach out to someone as soon as you put it down; it’s a powerful reminder to value what you’ve got.
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