There are a lot of laughs in Jason Little’s Borb, even though the subject matter is serious. The book centers on a homeless man who goes through an ever-worsening series of accidents and disasters, his already difficult life growing harder and harder with each new panel. And Little is very careful not to make his protagonist the butt of the joke, but he still injects the story with a strong sense of humor, so that it doesn’t have to read like a relentless string of one terrible event after another (even though that’s what it is).
A lot of the comedy comes from the visual style of Little’s art, combined with the somewhat slapstick physicality of the comic’s star. It’s all a bit exaggerated, Saturday-morning-cartoon-style, a lot of pratfalls and huge reactions and silly, on-the-nose sound effects. When the protagonist loses a finger to frostbite, he literally yells, “SCREAM” in huge, wavy letters; when he gets a set of false teeth, he almost immediately vomits them out into a body of water, then futilely dives in after them. These moments aren’t exactly jokes, but they’re hammed up and played for an at least partially comedic effect.
The main character’s responses to his dire circumstances are so big and bold and goofy—also a good way to describe the man himself—that even when he’s faced with incredible hardship, there’s an air of humor around him. He’s a sad clown, a literal tramp, the makeup removed and the make-believe dissolved so that we see a more real-life version of that classic archetype.
Little does pepper in some overt jokes, too. There’s a scene where the central character (I think of him as unnamed, because for the most part he is, but technically someone does refer to him as “Bob” at one point) defecates into a grocery bag in a subway station, then promptly passes out. Another man sits down with his own identical bag, and then accidentally takes the wrong bag onto the train with him, so our hero subsequently wakes up to find his feces seemingly transformed into food. The dumbstruck look on his face is amusing enough, but Little takes it a step or two further by giving him a thought balloon that just has an image of Jesus in it, a hilarious (if understandable) thought for him to have in that moment.
Later, there’s a long-running gag where the main character rips his pants, and then they keep falling over anytime he lets go of them to try and pick something up. We see a bunch of consecutive panels where he’s bending over to grab one item or another, and in each case his pants drop to his ankles and he says, quite matter-of-factly, “Oops.” It’s not all that funny at first, but with repetition and a bit of heightening, it becomes quite effectively entertaining, and ultimately leads to a deeply unfortunate misunderstanding that makes things even worse for Borb’s star than we’ve ever been before.
That pants-dropping sequence speaks to the biggest comedic strength of this book overall: escalation. Little steadily increases the awfulness, often presenting situations so absurdly bad that all you can do is laugh, even if it’s only to keep from crying. For more on the crying, see below.
As fun and funny as Borb can be, it’s also incredibly dark, and it explores an all-too-real problem, namely the lack of decent services or opportunities for the homeless population of this country. People who live like this story’s protagonist really do have to deal with each and every issue he encounters along the way. Perhaps the specifics of his experiences are amplified and compacted into an extremely small timeframe, but there are certainly real homeless people living in even worse circumstances, trying to overcome problems as large as or larger than his. Borb points a spotlight at that truth and forces the reader to acknowledge it, and then encourages us to take action in the end. Even the comedic bits serve this purpose, because they warm us up to the protagonist and make it easier for us to become familiar with his pain.
This is not to say that reading Borb is enough for anyone to understand what it’s like to be homeless; I can’t imagine anything shy of the actual experience could ever accomplish that. But this book does serve as a powerful reminder that everyone is a human being, no matter their status or situation, and that all human life matters.
There are a handful of occurrences in this story that stand out as the most movingly tragic, above all the two scenes that feature the main character’s ex-girlfriend. When we first see her, we don’t know exactly who she is to him, though Little does a good job of making it clear that they have some history and familiarity. She is walking her daughter home from school while he follows, watching them longingly but with deliberate caution and distance. Eventually, he does approach, and the look of shocked sadness on her face when she sees him speaks volumes about their shared past.
She gives him some cash and departs, and at first he crumples up the money and throws it away, too angry at the idea of charity from someone he knows to keep it. He rather quickly changes his tune, though, and retrieves the money from the trash can, knowing in his heart that he can’t afford to turn it down, no matter where it came from. It’s a one-two punch of bitterness for him and the reader alike. First there’s the shame of her offering the money, and then there’s the even bigger shame of his needing to accept it.
Later on, we see through flashback how our hero ended up where he is today, his fall from a life of happiness with that same girlfriend to one on the street. It’s a fairly standard story, almost cliché, but intentionally so, a representation of a sadly typical path to homelessness, and also, therefore, something of a warning for the reader. The protagonist rapidly goes from recreational cocaine user to recreational crack user to full-blown addict, effectively abandoning all of his responsibilities along the way, including his pregnant girlfriend and their unborn child. She kicks him out, he loses his job, and since all of his money is going to drugs by then, he ends up with nowhere to live.
It is, as I said, a story that’s been told a million times, but Little tells it again here because it’s still as relevant as ever, and because it matters a great deal to understand the core of this character and this comic. He’s not a bad guy, he’s merely one of countless regular people who have had their whole worlds wrecked by addiction. It helps to make him relatable, and it also deepens the overall tragedy of his tale.
Borb wears its influences on its sleeve. Literally—the book’s back cover name-checks Little Orphan Annie and Gasoline Alley, both of which are apt comparisons. Little draws these comics in a style that clearly pulls from their old-school titles, even breaking the story apart into four-panel strips and then organizing those into six-part sections, like a daily comicstrip that skips Sundays. Indeed, that’s how Borb began, as a webcomic that came out Monday-Saturday, one strip per day, four panels per strip. It’s a throwback structure, a tip of the cap to Little’s predecessors in this particular aesthetic, and it gives the book a timeless feel. It looks and acts retro, but its content is current.
Of course, as I touched on above, Borb is not only an homage to comicstrips of old, but also to the real-world men and women who struggle with homelessness, addiction, and all of the challenges that accompany them every day. Little dedicates the book “to the guy with the shopping cart who lived under the Culver Viaduct at 2nd Avenue and 10th Street, Brooklyn, circa 2009-2011.” So there’s a personal connection, if only a loose one, that explains some of Little’s motivations in creating this work.
He also plugs PathwaysToHousing.org, as well as housing-first initiatives in general, and urges his readers to contribute to either or both. That’s the most active activism we get in Borb, which is not explicitly a call to action so much as it’s a character portrait with the unspoken goal of humanizing and highlighting an oft-ignored community. But it’s significant that Little takes the time, however briefly, to point his audience in the right direction; perhaps the book will resonates enough with someone who will then be moved to try and help out the homeless in their neighborhood. He’s not satisfied with just planting that seed, however, he wants to water it, too, and the closing dedication and message are how he does so.
From its origins as an online project to Little’s self-imposed structural limitations to the inscrutable title, Borb is a strange comicbook all over, existing comfortably in an off-center position. It’s playfully experimental, not looking to forge a bold new path into wholly unexplored territory, but definitely trying (and succeeding) to be distinctly unlike other things. Even that it can be dissected and appreciated both as a goofball comedy and a grounded tragedy says a lot about its complexity and weirdness. Ditto the fact that it’s simultaneously an homage to depression-era comicstrips and a fresh take on a modern problem. There’s a lot going on all the time, despite (or because of) its rigid four-panel construction.
One of the things that stands out most about Borb compared to most comics is its appreciation of silence. This may be in part because Little both writes and draws it, so he’s not as concerned with sticking his words in where they’re not needed. But no matter the cause, it makes for an interesting experience, because Borb is not at all wordless book, yet it does have long stretches where nobody speaks. The main character spends a lot of time alone, so there’s no need for him to be talking then, and even during interactions with others, he’ll keep his mouth shut unless he absolutely must speak.
That seems to be the rule of thumb throughout this story, actually. Nobody talks unless the only good way for Little to deliver key information is through dialogue. The scene I mentioned earlier that shows the hero’s encounter with his ex is completely silent, for example, even though the two of them undoubtedly exchanged words. We don’t need to hear those words to appreciate the moment or feel its impact, so Little leaves them out. He’s not beholden to the quiet, and breaks it indulgently in a few spots (mostly when doctors are talking) but he clearly makes an effort to let the images convey as much as possible, a challenge he’s more than up to.
My guess would be that Little never shies from any creative challenge. Confining himself to four panels a day, and also forcing himself to produce something new and complete six days a week, are a pair of fairly daunting challenges that he gave himself and stuck to from start to finish. It’s admirable, and it also gives Borb a nice rhythm, a natural ebb and flow running underneath the constantly growing misfortune of the protagonist. Little uses these structural rules for great effect, as he does with the silence, and the slapstick humor, and the hopeless darkness of his main character’s life.
Every aspect is well executed, every risk pays off, and every new round of experimentation gets wonderful results. Little demanded a lot of himself to put Borb together, and the book in turn demands a lot of the reader, but there are rewards to be had on all sides, and a valuable, simple, important message about humanity at the heart of it all.