Ever had a weirdly intense friendship? Tommi Parrish’s latest book is for you

The Australian artist and author spent three years hand-painting Men I Trust, a graphic novel about a relationship that becomes uncomfortably ambiguous

Men I Trust opens with a group addiction therapy session in progress. Characters step forward to share their stories: a wife’s secret drinking; an alcoholic father. Eliza shares hers: she’s five years sober, recently separated from her child’s father and trying to figure it all out in the shadow of her own mother’s alcoholism. “Thank you for sharing,” the room echoes.

It’s a sombre beginning to Tommi Parrish’s second graphic novel, which examines the domino effect of trauma and the difficulty of forming healthy new relationships in it’s wake. The interloper is Sasha, a sex worker and a big fan of Eliza’s work as a performance poet. When the two women meet after one of Eliza’s gigs, Sasha is eager for them to be a part of one another’s lives. What starts as an innocent friendship becomes increasingly, uncomfortably close.

“My main thing that I’ve been trying to do as an adult is to learn how to be a person that has boundaries. It’s really fucking hard, so I talk about it a lot and think about a lot,” says Parrish, who is Melbourne-born and US-based. “I feel like it’s the cause of a lot of conflicts and a lot of resentment across the board when people don’t know how to say no – or don’t even know that they need to.”

Tommi Parrish, Melbourne-born, US-based artist and graphic novel author
Tommi Parrish, the Melbourne-born, US-based artist and author behind Men I Trust Photograph: Supplied

The story weaves through this almost-friendship, alongside Eliza’s struggles raising her son and Sasha’s borderline obsession with Eliza, which creeps into disturbing territory. It’s an exploration of what Parrish describes as “ambiguous, intense, weird friendships that are part romantic and part not” – a common experience within queer communities, where interpersonal relationships are often more complex and multifaceted. Parrish unpacked this fraught dynamic in their 2018 award-winning graphic novel The Lie and How We Told It; there are echoes of it in Stone Fruit, the first-ever graphic novel nominated for the Stella prize, by Parrish’s close friend Lee Lai.

“I think of it as trying to work out how to cultivate a type of intimacy that doesn’t have a roadmap, and everyone is just feeling around in the dark trying to work out how to do it,” Parrish says. “I think that’s what I was trying to get at – how to cultivate that closeness when you’re also really fucking traumatised and lonely. I know a lot of people where that’s their story. There have definitely been moments where that’s my story as well.”

from Men I Trust.
‘There aren’t bad people – there are just people that are struggling’ … from Men I Trust. Photograph: Scribe

Parrish has been living in western Massachusetts for the last three years, after a three-year stint in Montreal. The artist’s roots are in DIY and community spaces, having cut their teeth as a zine-maker in Melbourne’s underground scene – literally; the zine distro Sticky Institute, which Parrish says “will have a place in my heart forever”, was for many years located in the Flinders Street subway.

Even as Men I Trust descends into darker territory, Parrish’s empathic writing prompts readers to consider the circumstances that have led the characters to their decisions, however questionable. “I wanted both characters to be human and possible to empathise with,” they say. “I’m a pretty firm believer that for the most part, there aren’t bad people – there are just people that are struggling and trying really hard to be happy and just have absolutely no idea how to go about it, so they do fucked-up, manipulative things.”

A page from Men I Trust, which is entirely hand-painted.
A page from Men I Trust, which is entirely hand-painted. Photograph: Scribe

Their bold style – mostly darker colours, figures with large bodies and small heads – makes for eye-catching reading. Each page could stand alone as a work of art. The book is entirely hand-painted – a labour of love for Parrish, who spent up to 15 hours a day, without breaks, working on it over a period of three years.

“This is going to sound a bit dramatic, but it was actually the most physically difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life – it was a very, very, very, very full-on time,” they say. “It was quite gruelling, actually. But I love it. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it.”

Now, with a book tour spanning the US and Europe looming next year, Parrish is trying to “take a breath before things get really intense”.

“It’s nice to remember what it is to just be a person,” they say. “I take naps now!”

  • Men I Trust by Tommi Parrish is published by Scribe in Australia and out now ($45), by Fantagraphics in the US on 22 November and Scribe in the UK on 9 February.


Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

The GuardianTramp

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