(courtesy Penguin Random House)
There is something deliciously liberating, no doubt for the creator every bit as much as the reader, of a premise being seized by the lapels with alacrity and enthusiasm and taken to some narratively imaginative and epic but emotionally intimate places.
It’s rare that two play well in the same storytelling sandbox since either the expansiveness of the big plot points swamps the emotional intimacy of the small moments or the time taken in the quieter times idles the full speed ahead blockbuster-y of the rest of the story until it grinds to a halt.
But in the gorgeously, quirkily and satisfying in and of itself titled Vern: Custodian of the Universe by Tyrell Waiters, those two quite disparate elements sit quite happily in the same place, or places as it were, giving rise to a story that goes to some rewardingly out there places while engaging in the kind of relational moments usually reserved for stories with less furiously-paced storytelling oomph.
Vern is also a huge amount of fun.
For a story that cuts to the heart of family, mental health and the sheer, unadorned purpose of being alive, Vern also knows how to let its out-there imaginative core really go to town.
Or again, in towns, because this graphic novel, with art so lavishly evocative and yet playfully colourful and alive that you can’t help but glory in the visual worldbuilding, hops madly across the multiverse as our titular character, freshly moved from San Francisco back to his hometown in Florida after some serious burnout left him in dire need of restorative R&R of the most switched-off kind, gets a temporary job (his grandmother’s doing, not his) at the most amazingly off-the-charts place.
Hired as a janitor, or at least that’s what it looks like, at the Quasar Science Facility, he quickly finds himself cleaning up the multliple mother of all messes, including but not limited to, “galactic ooze and spacetime anomalies”.
If that’s not enough to intrigue you, and if not why not, then consider that when his mind is not being blown by the actual nature and location of his job, which is more existential than menial by a considerable margin, he finds out that his family history might not be quite as straightforward as he thought.
The joy of Vern, and it is significantly intense in the most delightful way, is that it manages to tell a story so extraordinarily involved and limitlessly clever that while you are caught up in how our highly likable protagonist is going to fix the mess he inadvertently creates when he plays a machine back into a powerpoint – it’s what a good janitor should do, right? Hmmm, maybe rethink that one – you’re also musing about what the point of being alive and why you do what you do.
That’s some grade-A, heavy duty philosophising there and while you might think that kind of deep thinking might ground these highly imaginative proceedings to a halt, you’d be wrong because Vern somehow achieves both giddy narrative speed and emotional thoughtfulness in one artfully illustrated package.
And it’s the art that really gives all those narrative quirks, and storytelling inventiveness and emotional muscularity the kind of engrossing presence a graphic novel needs.
It’s playful, it’s bright, it’s large and it’s colourful in a way that matches the tone and bigness of the storytelling and wordplay that all but demands a heftily clever visual accompaniment.
Vern most certainly gets that and among many things to admire about Waiters’ wholly enlivening artwork are the times when Vern jumps between universes.
Each of them are richly and arrestingly different and require him to down some pills that see him get extruded, like a Play-Doh being stretched by a super enthusiastic user, from one side of a portal to another, his body and consciousness visibly changed even as his mind and perception of the universe are altered to the extent that his family and future are never the same.
It’s ultimately a good thing but quite how must be left to the reading because SPOILERS; simply put though, Vern is a story with striking presence, writing and artwork-wise, and a huge amount of heart that’s an adventurous romp through the multiverse – for a well-used trope, Waiters gives its new life and vibrancy, making it feel all fresh and fun again which in itself is a pretty impressive achievement – but also a deep dive into what powers us, and how, after we have reached the end of ourselves and need some serious change and healing, that we might just find it but not in the way we expect it, and that, rather delightfully on all kinds of highly pleasing levels, doesn’t just save us but the universe and all of reality as well.