I love Neil Gaiman. Like full stop there. No, I’ll do it one better: I fucking love Neil Gaiman. History will smile upon Sandman as one of the greatest stories ever told, and American Gods is a phenomenal novel from meandering start to meandering finish. Anansi Boys is hysterical, Neverwhere is the most charming kind of wonderful, Good Omens is nothing short of fantastic…I mean, I could keep going, but I think I’ve made my point.
Now enter How to Talk to Girls at Parties, an almost coming-of-age comic book about…well, a shy, somewhat nerdy kid trying to overcome his fear of talking to members of the opposite sex. It’s a cute idea, and it’s a cute execution to be sure, but it’s almost too normal for Neil Gaiman.
Until, you know, it isn’t.
I have these expectations from Neil Gaiman (and Stephen King and George R. R. Martin and H.P. Lovecraft), to get a specific kind of story, and while that is unfair as hell, I’m happy to see those expectations met on a constant basis.
It does, however, take some of the mystery away. HTTTGAP (okay, there has to be a better way to abbreviate this), starts off by diving headfirst into Enn and Vic as our two main characters. The former is the shy person I mentioned above, and the latter is the gung-ho “We have to meet some girls!” kind of guy that all of us shy, nerdy kids are or were friends with at some point. And as the story crept along, I was waiting for the Gaiman moment to spring, for the narrative to get crazy and strange and maybe a little scary. It does because of course it does, and it’s amazing because of course it’s amazing, but damn. Like, I feel bad for demanding such a thing, for hunting for it. It is not a fair way to approach a story.
Regardless, what sets this apart from most other Gaiman stories is the scope. This isn’t Shadow wandering around America or Morpheus wandering around…everywhere; it’s two kids at a high-school party. This isn’t a big story with a giant cast of characters or a strange place to visit but about Enn, the most normal of normal people who is just a bit too shy for his own good.
It’s nice to see something so casual and almost personal here. Even on page one I was already rooting for Enn, and not just because I see myself in him. No, it’s just the way he starts the comic. It’s a memory, a voice over, and you can tell he never believed Vic from the get-go. He’s being dragged by his extroverted friend into a place he deems scary, but this isn’t London Below or wherever the hell Charlie went in Anansi Boys. Yet it is scary, because damnit if we haven’t been there before.
Strangers. Girls. Boys. Alcohol for the first time. More girls. Small talk!
And yet Vic isn’t a bad friend. In fact, he’s a damn good one, that wingman who has your back even though he doesn’t quite get why you’re so strange and shy. “It’s easy!” he’ll proclaim as he effortlessly gets the prettiest girl at the party, and you look at him like he’s speaking six different languages at once. But he does care, and he does want you to have fun, so it’s impossible to dislike him. As I read through this, I pictured my friends and similar situations that I’ve been in. It’s so easy to relate to what’s going on here that it’s kind of spooky.
This is the first area where HTTTGAP (sorry) excels. The second lies within the title of the comic itself. See, talking is only part one; the second part is listening. Enn talks, and seeing just that spark of character development is great, but he also doesn’t quite get to listening. He’s talking to girls about himself, and they talk back, and he misses everything. It maybe becomes a problem.
It’s hilarious. It’s also very Neil Gaiman, but you know, in the best of ways (there are no bad ways to be very Neil Gaiman).
For a book about two underage kids going to a high-school party, there’s this amazing and effortless amount of world building here, if that makes any sense. A lot is said in very little space, enough to establish multiple characters, lore, and a host of other goodies. It’s such a precise art form, and I really hope comic book readers understand how difficult it is to pack so much information into such a little space and not bog anything down.
You know when you run into bad exposition; you do not notice good exposition.
On the art front, because this is a comic book, I really like what Fabio Moon has done. There’s a lot of soft, vibrant colors here, and his expressions are on point. I’ve seen better artwork in other comics to be sure, but his style absolutely fits this story. When HTTTGAP gets a bit surreal and strange, the artwork follows, matching Gaiman beat for beat.
The way he sells the ending here is quite marvelous.
So yeah. HTTTGAP is really, really good, the exact kind of thing I look for in a Neil Gaiman story. It’s got what I want, yet it changes just enough to make it stand apart from his other works. It’s normal until it isn’t, and really, isn’t that what we want from any story?