Have you ever had a weirdly intense friendship? Tommi Parrish’s latest book is for you | Comics and graphic novels
Men I Trust opens with an ongoing substance abuse group therapy session. The characters step forward to share their stories: a woman’s secret drink; an alcoholic father. Eliza shares hers: she’s been sober for five years, recently separated from the father of her child and trying to figure it all out in the shadow of her own mother’s alcoholism. “Thank you for sharing”, resounds the room.
It’s a grim start to Tommi Parrish’s second graphic novel, which examines the domino effect of trauma and the difficulty of forming healthy new relationships in its wake. The odd one out is Sasha, a sex worker and a big fan of Eliza’s work as a performance poet. When the two women meet after one of Eliza’s concerts, Sasha can’t wait for them to be part of each other’s lives. What begins as an innocent friendship grows increasingly uncomfortably close.
“My main thing that I tried to do as an adult is learn to be a person with boundaries. It’s really hard, so I talk about it a lot and think about it a lot,” says Parrish, who was born in Melbourne and lives in the United States “I feel like it’s the cause of a lot of conflict and a lot of resentment at all levels when people don’t know how to say no – or don’t even know they need it.”
The story cuts through this near-friendship, alongside Eliza’s struggles to raise her son and Sasha’s borderline obsession with Eliza, which creeps into disturbing territory. It’s an exploration of what Parrish describes as “ambiguous, intense, strange friendships that are part romantic and part unromantic” – a common experience within queer communities, where interpersonal relationships are often more complex and multifaceted. Parrish unpacked this tense dynamic in his award-winning 2018 graphic novel The Lie and How We Told It; there are echoes of it in Stone Fruit, the first-ever Stella Award-nominated graphic novel, by Parrish’s close friend Lee Lai.
“I think it’s about trying to figure out how to cultivate a type of intimacy that doesn’t have a track record, and everyone just feels in the dark trying to figure out how to do that,” said Parrish. “I think that’s what I was trying to say – how to cultivate that closeness when you’re also really traumatized and alone. I know a lot of people for whom this is their story. There have certainly been times when this is also my story.
Parrish has lived in western Massachusetts for three years, after spending three years in Montreal. The artist’s roots are in DIY and community spaces, having cut his teeth as a zine-maker in Melbourne’s underground scene – literally; the zine distro Sticky Institute, which Parrish says “will have a place in my heart forever”, was for many years located in the Flinders Street underground.
Even as Men I Trust descends into darker territory, Parrish’s empathetic writing prompts readers to consider the circumstances that led the characters to their decisions, however questionable. “I wanted both characters to be human and to be able to sympathize with them,” they say. “I believe pretty strongly that for the most part, there are no bad people – there are just people who struggle and really try to be happy and have absolutely no idea how to go about it, so they do shitty and manipulative things.
Their bold style – mostly darker colors, characters with big bodies and small heads – makes for eye-catching reading. Each page could be considered a work of art. The book is painted entirely by hand – a labor of love for Parrish, who spent up to 15 hours a day, without a break, working on it over a period of three years.
“It’s going to sound a bit dramatic, but it was actually the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life – it was a very, very, very, very intense time,” they say. “It was pretty taxing, actually. But I like it. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it.
Now, with a book tour of the United States and Europe looming next year, Parrish is trying to “breathe before things get really intense.”
“It’s good to remember what it’s like to just be a person,” they say. “I take naps now!”
Men I Trust by Tommi Parrish is published by Scribe in Australia and available now ($45), by Fantagraphics in the US on November 22 and Scribe in the UK on February 9.