Review: Through the Habitrails: Life Before and After My Career in Cubicles

habitrails_coverAbout a month and a half ago, a fellow reviewer wrote a positive appraisal of Nicholson’s Habitrails.  After reading his review, I wanted to access our digital copy to read it for myself, but for whatever reason I procrastinated, and never got around to it. Then yesterday, while picking up my stack on new comic back day–as I do every Wednesday–I also grabbed a hard copy of this graphic novel (after seeing it on the shelf, and having my memory jarred).  I read it on the train ride home from work.  That was a good thing, because, let me tell you, it would have sucked reading this on the morning train ride to work.

This well-produced paperback edition, by Dover Publications, partially collects the original graphic novella1, with a foreword by Matt Fraction (read it), a literary and academic introduction by Stephen R. Bissette (I highly recommend you do not skip it), and an afterword by the author (yes, read  that too). habitrails 001 1Bissette, in his introduction, categorizes this work as horror. I, however, was not horrified, but rather disturbed. Nicholson’s existentialist bitter and nihilistic novella metaphorically captures some of the darker moments of my own early work life. I’d like to think that my experiences are unique, but Nicholson shatters that illusion, and shows how eerily similar our corporate mandated work experiences are.  

Bisette in his introduction makes comparisons to Kafka, but I’d sooner compare it to my paltry Camus readings (The Stranger and Myth of Sisyphus)–our hero perseveres, despite of all the shit that is heaped up on him.  In the introduction and afterword, we learn that Nicholson, in his earlier years, tried to distance himself from this confessional work; but over time he has reclaimed its habitrails 003autobiographical aspects. In the end, he appears to have come to some sort of acceptance with a life best lived, than none at all.

The early chapters detail our younger faceless no-name hero’s beginning post-college work life in graphic design, for a “progressive” corporate slave master, who employs gerbils–housed internally in clear plastic tubes (thus the habitrails) within the dark gray corporate office space–as motivational empaths.  We watch in despair as he passively gives in to dehumanizing company cubicle life, and his creative juices are sucked out via corporate authorized neck taps. In dark inked black and white stupefying pictorials, together with Chad Woody’s singular lettering, we witness our faceless doppelganger live his life, and ours.

In later chapters we see our barely functioning hero navigate the absurdity of work-life friendships and relationships, under the numbing influence of alcohol and drugs.  He tries habitrails 002 (1)to escape, and for a brief moment almost succeeds, only to be betrayed, and led to the contemplation of suicide. This is followed by disastrous financial choices, marriage, divorce, and marriage again. In the end, there is no end–only acceptance. Our hero accepts life, and makes the best of it. This does not make for a wholly satisfying happy ending. At best it is a realization, one you may or may not agree with.

Myself, today, I am not so nihilistic (and in my younger years confess to have possessed the dubious faculty of positive self-delusion). There are a few of us who are lucky enough to be able to monetize what we enjoy doing, and work at a job we love. Others, unfortunately, fall on the left side of the bell curve, and toil at a hateful thankless job, trapped by a variety of circumstances that psychologically prevents them from moving forward; but most of us, I speculate, are able to find a job in our later years, that although we don’t love, is tolerable enough with like-minded peers, who together muster the strength to work through the day. And if you’re lucky, it also provides a modest income that allows you to raise a family, and support a side job or hobby you love, to make up the difference.

This is not an uplifting read, but nonetheless I highly recommend it. As Bissette urges, I would not read it on a Monday or the day before–nor on new comic book Wednesdays for that matter, since afterwards you will be in no mood to read anything else.  Find an empty slot midweek, lock up any firearms, keep some antidepressants on hand in case of an existential spiritual crisis, and cuddle up for Nicholson’s literary graphical trip down the “black spiral” of corporate mandated life.

Story: Jeff Nicholson  Art: Jeff Nicholson  Letterer: Chad Woody
Story: 9.1  Art: 9.1  Overall: 9.1  Recommendation: Buy


1At the publisher’s request it excludes the confessional story ‘Cat Lover’, lettered by Nicholson himself and not by Chad Woody, which was deemed to interrupt the flow of the current version.