After a chance encounter at the supermarket, two former friends attempt to salvage their deteriorating friendship. What follows is a drawn-out and somewhat awkward evening of booze, fragmented memories, and an impending sense of disappointment. The plot of The Lie and How We Told It is simple, yet with each hand-painted panel, author Tommi Parrish communicates an intense atmosphere and delves thoughtfully into the themes of queer desire, masculinity, fear, and the fading of past relationships.
Based in Melborne, Australia, Parrish’s illustration work has appeared in various anthologies and magazines to date, and in the form of small zines and comics. The Lie and How We Told It is their first graphic novel, released by Fantagraphics this January.
One of the most intriguing and striking elements of the book is Parrish’s formalized play: rapid experiments with paint, texture, density, and the thickness of lines make up the majority of the spreads. The way that Parrish depicts bodies is particularly interesting to observe: at times, small heads without faces peep out from long, cumbersome shoulders and arms, evoking awkwardness—that feeling that your body is too present. Then, when the reader discovers more about a character, their face is depicted with intense detail, heads swelling to fill an entire panel. At other times, the red hair on top of one protagonist becomes nothing other than a sketched outline, or their hair disappears altogether, leaving a smooth bald splodge of paint in its place. This illustrative splintering enacts the way that a person can fade in and out of memory; how a shared moment can make someone clear and seem very close, only for them to vanish again a second later as if never there in the first place.
Parrish uses a similar technique for speech bubbles, too. Text might suddenly lack a white background during a conversation, designating a lie, or a feeling of uncertainty, or a fissure in confidence. The red-haired friend who is openly queer remarks, “I didn’t say you were [gay]” when the two protagonists sit at a bar. The other responds, “Good because I’m not.” A lack of a confident white box to encase this response is as loaded as a voice cracking.
In Parrish’s world, the interior self and external surrounding bleed into one another a little; the density of a line, or the texture making up a body comes to represent emotion. This technique makes for a sympathetic and raw graphic novel, and it keeps the reader on their toes.
While half of the work is created using this thick, continually morphing paint technique, a second part of it—emphasized by a change in paper stock—is rendered entirely with thin black ink on white paper. The lines of this section don’t dance or waver but keep perfectly still instead. This second narrative belongs to a novel that one of the characters finds in a bush—a classic case of a book within a book—and it appears halfway through the main story. The zine-like meta-novel recounts the tale of a non-gender conforming person hooking up with a rugged truck driver, and musing on the way they suddenly conform to heteronormative gender roles—“I suddenly realize I’m arching my back in the way TV has taught me men like” they write in one panel. The solidness of the drawn lines evoke certainty: it’s as if the reader of this book—the red-haired protagonist who found it as they sit on the street—feels more at home reading the novel than in the fragmented company of their former friend.
Parrish’s story weaves between this second narrative and the central tale. It’s an interplay that speaks to the way that fiction—whether a comic or a novel more generally—can feel as solid and affirming as a close friendship can at times. Parrish’s ode to a fading relationship, but also in a way to a new one, considers how we tell lies to ourselves about our past, our sexuality, and our sense of self. It also considers how we sometimes detangle these lies, fashioning our selves and affirming our identities by reading and relating to other people’s lies and how they tell them, write about them, or even draw them in fiction.