Hyperbole and a Half
Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened
By Allie Brosh
Touchstone. 269 pp. $17.99
Your best friend in the whole, entire world decides to move to Prague to teach English for two years. At first, you miss her terribly, thinking about her every moment of every day. You wonder what and how she's doing. As more time passes, you start to think about her less. You forget what her voice sounds like, and you can't quite recall her face.
But when she comes back two years later, she returns with a sheen of brilliance. She appears much wiser. It is a thrill to have her back in your life, and you hope she never plans to go anywhere ever again.
Meet Allie Brosh. In 2009, she started a blog with a very long domain name (hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com). She wrote hundreds of posts, all funny stories from her life. Each entry was interspersed with drawings, created using the primitive software MS Paint.
The site had more than 5 million unique visitors a month. She was everyone's best friend in the whole, entire world. But then Allie's posts stopped. Not a single RSS feed arrived to an inbox. At first, she was missed terribly, but eventually she was neglected for sites like Buzzfeed and YouTube videos of cute animals doing cute things. A year and a half went by, and she returned with a handful of posts. But this was just a teaser for a true dramatic reveal: her blog in book form.
Hyperbole and a Half, the book, illuminates the work previously published digitally. Each chapter stands alone as its own story, bouncing back and forth between childhood experiences and the not-so-distant past. Sandwiched among paragraphs are illustrations that resemble the stacks of drawings that a kindergartner brings home from school (This is my family . . . This is our dog . . . This is me . . .).
Allie draws herself in almost every frame, with bold, sticklike appendages, bulging eyeballs, and a mouth whose expressions mirror the lunar cycle. Whether half moon or upside-down sliver, the range of emotion shines through.
In interviews, Brosh equates this format with the rhythm and cadence of stand-up comedy. Her text provides the set-up, while the illustrations supply the punch lines. And there are so many punch lines. Reading this book is much like seeing a live performance. Each turn of the page is a hair-trigger for out-loud laughter. If there were a cover charge, even with a two-drink minimum, I would gladly pay to sit in a room full of people reading this book, merely to share the laughter.
About half this collection was published on the Hyperbole blog. But reading the stories on the page is a far better experience than than the never-ending scroll down a computer screen. You can speed through or savor each story as it lands.
A standout piece is "The God of Cake," an account of Brosh's quest to eat her grandmother's entire birthday cake. In the middle of the story lie four pages without words, just simple comic book blocks. We see Brosh in a pink jumper, a dagger of yellow protruding from her head (representing a ponytail), her face covered in multicolored crumbs, as her ravenous desire for cake escalates stage by stage. A simple squiggle above the eye creates the funniest and most truthful furrowed eyebrow you have ever seen. The absence of words simply makes the sequence all the funnier. Stare at these drawings long enough, and you'll see Brosh inside out.
The new material adds to the gut-busting humor. In "The Hot Sauce Debacle," 8-year-old Allie is cajoled into a hot-sauce-eating competition with her father's middle-aged, male coworker. Spoiler alert: She wins. "Lost in the Woods" focuses on Allie's mom and an adventure gone wrong. Mom's elaborate cover-up is a perfect origin story for future Allie's psyche.
Brosh can also reverse both tone and the text-art balance. The chapters "Depression Part One" and "Depression Part Two" dissect Brosh's bout of depression (the cause of her hiatus) with equal parts frankness and vulnerability. "I just drifted around," she writes, "completely unsure of what I was feeling or whether I could actually feel anything at all."
It's text over art, at first - but the art comes back into the equation, bravely and inventively.