Advertising is the lubricant for capitalism’s gears—even your friendly neighbourhood alt-weekly needs those precious ad dollars to keep going.
In Shoplifter, the debut graphic novel from Toronto’s Michael Cho, the advertising industry is a vehicle to discuss the greater alienation brought on by our modern condition where our lives are mediated through screens while we’re constantly being sold something by someone at every moment.
Cho’s wonderful draftsmanship is on fine display in Shoplifter. His use of inky-blacks and crisp whites are beautifully off-set with the book’s salmony-pink colouring, adding gorgeous texture to this unnamed city that looks a lot like Toronto. The characters are soft and expressive, his cityscapes richly detailed. Multiple two-page spreads are devoted to the hustling, ad-festooned streets where the book’s protagonist, Corrina Park, is lost in a massive crowd, an anonymous face skulking through it all.
“God, I’ve fallen into the classic trap,” Park thinks to herself on the subway-ride home from work. She’s a copywriter at some nameless advertising agency in some nameless big city, five years on in her post-English literature degree life. Her struggle is the typical quarter-life crisis: she’s spent the past five years writing copy for her company’s clients while her dream of a career writing novels sits on the back burner.
Her guilty secret—the one thing that gives her a pick-me-up after a tough day at the office—is stealing magazines from the local chain convenience store. Her ethics requires her to steal only from the giant corporate chains, not mom-and-pop stores as she explains: “I’d feel guilty doing it there. I’d be robbing people.”
Almost everyone is trying to buy or sell something in Shoplifter, and Park’s little rebellion at the convenience store is her way of bucking the system. Park’s boss Rodney explains to her that advertisers are “the dreamers of capitalism,” trying to sell their client’s products by meaningfully connecting with consumers. But everyone is trying to sell something, or themselves, here: at a party for rppl—a start-up that’s “something to do with Facebook … but, like, with more shopping” according to Park’s bubbly colleague Candi—Rodney is sold on a new advertising platform that can assign a value to any human interaction. The band on stage at the rppl party are slagged off as pitch-men by Ben, a freelance photographer Park has a crush on, their authenticity tainted by their cashing-in.
This constant selling alienates Park, and her alienation is further amplified by her life being completely mediated through screens. She tries online dating, but only deletes the barrage of tacky messages she gets from idiot men. Where she would once go back to her small town to catch up with her hometown friends, she now watches their lives pass her by on social media. As she stares at a lonely polar bear on an ice floe, she contemplates the gorgeous sunset on screen, and thinks “Sometimes I think I only see moments through some kind of screen.”
Shoplifter can be a bit too on-the-nose at times—the rppl party is thematically resonant, but the characters at the party are sneering caricatures of Millennials—but Cho’s debut graphic novel is an enjoyable, quick read that dares to think about some bigger issues while telling a small story about following one’s dreams.
Available Sep 2
By Michael Cho
Pantheon, 96 pp, $17.29