Let me see if I can get this just right; if you took all of the salvageable components of a few creators I think are hyped up with a little too much critical acclaim and distilled that blend into one solitary creative vision, I think it might look like Malachi Ward. Does that work for you? Because what you find here is the poignancy of Kevin Huizenga (without the overt sense of constructionism), the beady-eyed precision of Chris Ware (without the dreary sense of repetition), the supple figures of Adrian Tomine (without the self-absorbed navel-gazing), and the mood affectation of Charles Burns (without the off-putting clinical boredom). I’m always a little hesitant to use comparisons like this, because it risks discrediting a creator’s own sense of individuality, but I do so here only to show that Ward can absolutely compete in the same artistic game as those lauded creators. Real Life comes in a beautiful magazine-size edition with thick stock covers and lulls you into thinking it’s something it’s not. It’s a clever domestic hook that pulls you in and then flips your genre expectations upside down. There’s a young couple, the woman is a music teacher, it has this sense of introspection, and I assumed we’d dive into a contemplation of their modern relationship. That would be good, but what comes instead is great. Little did I know that the clues around the sights and sounds during a night-time power outage would yield such unanticipated results. It’s not just about the way we can obsess on rather trivial details rather than just experiencing life and the nuances of a relationship. It moves toward parsing the symbolism of sky-bound flashes of light and a chilling beetle incursion in tandem with where to find good pizza. From that liminal state between dreams and reality, we continue down the rabbit hole through an extended silent sequence about fear, paranoia, and insecurity, from a playful and somewhat idyllic setting into a macabre horror-infused turn of events. It’s a horrible crescendo that has you asking yourself if there are really menacing aliens lurking about or just our own wretched insecurities. It’s scary because of what it doesn’t show, we fill in the gaps with our own nightmares. They may be uncomfortable realizations, but they’re intellectually honest and charged with a stark emotional resonance. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Grade A+.