The story told in the pages of Shoplifter will be all too familiar to many: idealistic college graduate who takes a job to pay the bills, only to find herself stuck in a rut several years later. The ennui felt by the petit-bourgeois as they carry on with their humdrum routines has been grist for all kinds of popular entertainment for decades now, including many alt-lit comics from the nineties. So the graphic novel’s creator Michael Cho doesn’t exactly cover new ground here. But I suspect this trope will only continue to find an eager audience as we seemingly march towards a future in which all of human civilization has been successfully converted into a giant high-tech shopping mall, à la Wall-E.
This is a simple tale with hardly any plot to speak of. Corrina Park works as a copywriter for an ad agency located in an unnamed North American city (I’m assuming it’s Toronto). She began her career dreaming of one day becoming a novelist. But with said dreams still completely unfulfilled, her personal frustration begins to bubble to the surface. This causes her boss to inquire whether she even wants to continue working at the agency. There’s no melodrama in Shoplifter. Corinna doesn’t suddenly decide to bring down the capitalist system from within by founding an underground fight club, or anything else along those lines. But she does avail herself to a low-level form of rebellion by pilfering magazines from the local convenience store. There aren’t any illicit affairs, or physical confrontations, or office intrigue leading to a public blowout with the boss. The book is instead a quiet meditation wherein its protagonist navigates a series of mundane obstacles, culminating in a quiet epiphany. It reads like something a film school major or fledging indie director would have fashioned into a short movie. So why not adapt those devices to one's first graphic novel?
I will admit that one of the reasons I enjoyed Shoplifter is that I identified with Corrina to a considerable degree, particularly her backstory and frustrated creative ambitions. But the first words she utters, which she declares in perfect deadpan, quickly won me over. Corinna is a likeable individual. Introverted, but affable. Thoroughly dissatisfied with what she's accomplished so far, but somewhat aware of the comparable privilege she still enjoys because of her day job. Afraid of change, but desperate for personal growth. And I'm amused at how Cho draws her as a diminutive Asian woman who exhibits the occasional worry lines under her eyes. This makes her appear both fragile and visually unique. Corinna’s cropped dark hair makes her a little bit easier to spot in even the most crowded city street. But her stature constantly forces her to literally look up to anyone she engages in conversation, which is slightly comical and kinda endearing.
The supporting characters are no more than archetypes. There’s the aforementioned boss portrayed as a dapper middle-aged man who likes to put on airs. A slightly ditzy-looking receptionist co-worker, the closest person Corinna has to a friend, keeps inviting her to join in the after-hours fraternizing. A would-be love interest is given rugged good looks - complete with stubble and smouldering dark eyes. Their appearances are mercifully short, and they’re rendered in assured shorthand by Cho. He draws in a classic illustrative style along the lines of Darwyn Cooke and Jaime Hernandez. Forms and shapes are clearly delineated by eschewing cross hatching for solid shadows. Cho’s economical with his use of blacks, and employs rose pinks for midtones. The effect of these choices captures the lively bustle of the book’s urban setting and the ubiquity of electronic media.
The overarching theme of Shoplifter is how this ubiquity has allowed advertising to intrude into every aspect of our lives, influencing the way individual consumers communicate with each other until their online profiles have been turned into brands desperately promoting their status updates. Cho’s approach to the issue isn’t subtle: Corrina is seen rejecting poorly-worded proposals on an internet dating site. And the book’s pivotal scene occurs in an obnoxious nightclub party celebrating the launch of a social media site that reduces human relationships “into a plus or minus value. For whatever the client’s product or service.” Ugh! That’s so MeowMeowBeenz. But never is this more evident than in the physical world where Cho gets to show his chops as an artist and illustrator. Whether it be the conspicuously designed billboards and posters that plaster the city’s downtown area. Or the typography adorning street signs, subway station ads, train car cards, store shelf products, and magazine racks. Corrina is inundated by ad-copy wherever she goes. But as uncomfortable as that might sound, it’s lovingly realized by Cho. His urban landscapes are neatly balanced, luminous, even almost magical. The city might foster a rootless existence. But it is a seductive place, serenely insisting that the reader become lost within it.