UNREAL CITY by D.J. Bryant
UNREAL CITY contains five stories that surpass understanding, and commit more to being edgy than actual storytelling. While the artwork is hauntingly realistic, many of the illustrations are aggressively sexualized.
37 %
confusing and unsettling

Fantagraphics markets UNREAL CITY as an existential comic about relationships, which explores gender, narcissism, marriage, and objectification. While those themes are certainly within the comic, the story is simultaneously about so much more and so much less. This title by D.J. Bryant contains five stories, which have haunting, gripping artwork, but, to me, the plots tend to be rambling and overly abstract.

Unclear Trajectories

UNREAL CITY is an odd comic. Typically, I love some oddity, but I find this comic hard to grasp. There are some stories, like “Echoes into Eternity,” which feel complete and really do give me something to think about. In that tale, Nadya becomes obsessed with a boy she saw only for a few moments. Eventually she goes to his apartment and finds everything there to be familiar. When the two of them touch hands, the world seems to invert, and all of the characters in the comic change gender. I feel like it speaks to the endless possibilities of the universe.

READ: For more gritty, unusual storytelling, check out UNDERWINTER #1!

On the other hand, there are stories like “Evelyn Dolton-Hoyt” which don’t have a clear point. This story centers around Henry and his wife Evelyn. Themes of emasculation are within this piece, but there’s no real follow-through to either condemn the clear abuse from Evelyn or address the simultaneous issue of Henry craving dominance. There’s a push and pull of insults, sex, and manipulation, with an inexplicable detour into a hyper-masculine conversation with a policeman. There’s a factor of apparent mental illness, which propels the story to an abrupt and unclear ending.

Image from UNREAL CITY, courtesy of Fantagraphics Books.

Aggressively Erotic

What disturbs me about UNREAL CITY is its use of sexuality. Nudity or explicit sexual content rarely bothers me, but I feel like this comic both overuses and misuses sex. For a comic that claims to address objectification, it only ever succeeds at putting a spotlight on it and implementing it, rather than making any statement on it. While the comic depicts men and women alike nude, it showcases the bodies of women much more. The male gaze is alive and well, and, even if it weren’t, most instances of sex and nudity are unnecessary to move the story along. It’s clear it’s there for shock value.

LISTEN: For more discussion on sex in comics, check out this podcast!

Beyond my growing discomfort with excruciatingly detailed genitalia, the comic frames female queerness in an unfavorable light. In the story “Evelyn Dolton-Hoyt,” Evelyn cheats on her husband with another woman. The problem arises when Evelyn’s bisexuality is treated like a personal cruelty against Henry. It’s almost as if Evelyn’s decision to be with a woman is framed to be a slight against Henry’s standing as a man. Additionally, the sex between Evelyn and her lover is largely performative, done for the benefit of wounding her husband’s pride.

Image from UNREAL CITY, courtesy of Fantagraphics Books.

Realistic Artwork in Abstract Stories

For the most part, I am really impressed by the artwork in UNREAL CITY. There’s a wonderful realism to the illustrations, and the dark, ominous stylization lends to the unusual and abstract stories. The main issue that I have is that in the fourth story, “The Yellowknife Retrospective,” the art style suddenly shifts to cartoonish, with bright, vibrant coloring.

Image from UNREAL CITY, courtesy of Fantagraphics Books.

The fifth story, “Object D’Art,” shifts back into the gritty black and white art style of the previous stories. Having one story that strays from the established style is a little disorienting. Had there been more variations, it would make more sense. As it is, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Personally, I prefer a more cohesive approach when it comes to a collection of stories like this.

READ: For more trippy art, check out ASTERIOS POLYP!

Final Thoughts on UNREAL CITY

While this comic certainly wasn’t a personal favorite of mine, I imagine there will be a following of people who love it for what it is. It’s shocking, hypersexual, and dangerous. I’m fully aware those are issues of taste, and taste issues that don’t align with mine. However, what hurts this comic most is its plot lines which often lose direction or fail to grasp a solid point. Overall, this is a visually stunning comic. Textually, it’s a little too intangible.

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