Is it art without humanity? That’s probably an unanswerable question and certainly, plenty of arguments exist that fall firmly on the side of “it doesn’t matter” or “humanity is not a pre-existing necessity for anything,” but The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott certainly falls on the side of advocating for a human component to art. It’s not likely to change your view, but it will offer an engaging street drama in its attempt, while it posits some big ideas about how art is made and what gives it depth and growth.
Billie Scott is a young woman who lives in shared housing, but keeps to herself, holing up in her room and focusing on honing her art at the cost of human relations and, indeed, being out in the world. Two major events slam her at the same time — she has the opportunity for her first gallery show and has to create a body of work in a limited amount of time, but she also finds out that some vision problems she’s recently encountered point to impending blindness.
These would seem to be working against each other, but Billie is inspired to seize the moment and takes off on a road trip with the goal of painting 10 portraits of 10 people. This is brought on by an unexpected bonding session with the housemates she previously ignored and the realization that she’s been so focused on putting her art first that she’s cut herself off from life. Creating the 10 portraits is her opportunity at one last chance of living life while she still has eyesight.
The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott is the debut graphic novel by Zoe Thorogood, who creates a fully-realized street-level world for Billie Scott to inhabit along with a variety of new acquaintances. Thorogood has a scrappy art style and in a strange way, it reminds me of British comics from 30 years ago, the sort of style that might have appeared in 2000 AD, maybe reminiscent of Tank Girl. The subject matter is the exact opposite, but this stylistic connection in my brain added to the tone of the book.
I don’t have to tell you and you probably don’t have to ask — Billie’s journey is going to be transformative. The beauty of the book doesn’t lie in the prospect of there being any other outcome, but in the way that inevitable outcome happens and in the real revelation of the book. Art is not created by playing it safe, and yet that is what Billie has done all her life by living cloistered and focused. She created a world in which it was safe to make her art unimpeded and it was safe to follow her creative track without challenges.
But art is a lot like life, and it’s by allowing yourself to encounter the unknown that either becomes enriching, partly because that’s when you learn new things and find new ways to look at the old things, but also because it can require creative solutions and that’s the situation where most people meet failure. Billie Scott has spent her life fearing failure but when confronted by impending blindness she realizes that you eventually encounter the unknown whether you do so intentionally or not. Her 10-portrait project becomes a crash-course in facing the unknown and rising to the challenges it pushes at her.
The irony is that such a venture will also push her art further just as she loses a crucial aspect of creating it. But that’s another point in what Billie does — she’s going to need guile in order to find a new way to express herself. That’s her challenge. But she’s also going to require community. The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott shows that the adventure of life and the adventure of art — as well as the connections each can build — are impossible to separate. And there’s no reason anyone should want to.