Ink Toby by A.T. Pratt is a rare thing in the world of indie comics, simultaneously a take down of the scene’s at times Pollyanna-ish culture yet one so steeped in the form that it could only come from an artist who truly loves the medium. We follow the titular Ink Toby, a cherubic dimwit, on his quest to post a drawing every day of Inktober. It is when things quickly spiral out of control for Toby that Pratt’s keen sense of humor and sharp comedic dialogue yank the rubber band of the classic cartoonist making a comic about the not-knowing-what-to-draw trope to the breaking point and beyond. Pratt is so aware of the conventions and mechanics he is playing in yet he never loses sight of the goal he is trying to achieve. Ink Toby becomes more than an exercise in creating a page of comics-a-day and instead becomes a farce on par with some of the best half-hour animated sitcoms.
Ink Toby’s journey begins innocently enough with him at his drawing desk announcing his love of the concept of Inktober. However, even by the end of the fist page he is already despairing at his lack of ideas and has drawn a black X across his face. He will seek, but find, little solace in the company of his friend the loutish Ink Tony or his parents Ink Tommy and Ink Terri. His father even tells his mother to stop humoring Toby’s delusions of friendship with the reader. Everyone has had enough of Ink Toby and his saccharine mugging to camera and goody-two-shoes, “sober for ‘tober” attitude even before he becomes a wanted criminal, sent to jail, and then lets his infamy go to his head.
Time and again Ink Toby is degraded, beat up, humiliated but always bounces back with an idiotic grin on his face. An unwavering belief in Inktober will propel Toby through even the darkest of times. What make Ink Toby’s misfortune special is that we the reader relish in in it. We roll our eyes at Toby’s misguided shilling for the defunct line of Sobe brand beverages. We agree with Ink Tony when he tells Toby, “Get a life Toby. Maybe that will inspire you.” Framed for murder and on the lam from the police Ink Toby continues to post his lame drawings for Inktober as the reader shouts at him for being the dope that he is.
Beneath Toby’s foolish optimism lies Pratt’s deeper critique of what it means to be a cartoonist in the era of social media. Toby hopes that his criminal notoriety will increase his artistic cache. Hiding out in a cave he is more concerned with his followers than he is about being attacked by a bear. This is a theme that continues as Toby is sent to jail yet still allowed to post his drawings online. It climaxes in the newly exonerated Toby saying he would have committed the frame up triple homicide in, “a heartbeat if I knew it would get me all these frieeeeeeeeends!!”
When his family and friends disown and later beat up Toby for this comment we are squarely on their side. This pathological obsession with cultural attention is not only reserved for Ink Toby. We see this mirrored in the Halloween Shop owner who uses his connection to the murders as a way to hock costumes. Similarly, the overly dramatic Warden Borden seeks to cash in on Toby’s fame and talents by making him draw, “the great American Graphic Novel Masterpiece of our time,” and is distraught when Toby is set free and his notoriety no longer exploitable. Everyone wants to grab their fifteen minutes.
In another way the true target of Pratt’s scorn may be Pratt himself. Ink Toby was drawn under the very constraints that Pratt is mocking. The constant grinding away at making comics in an attempt to move the needle on an artist’s social profile. Reducing art to grist for the content mill. Even if as Pratt admits, the work was not finished during Inktober, it still adheres to that push to rapidly produce pages. This doesn’t always play to Pratt’s advantage, as his pages can be overly dense with at times cramped panel layouts. There are also a few instances where dialogue does, as Toby’s father cautions against, dominate the page. In Ink Tommy’s own words, “You think everyone wants to read all that shit?” Making a joke of the works shortcomings does not completely alleviate them.
Still, the cartooning within the panels is charming and expressive. The reader comes to love all the hapless bumblers of Ink Toby’s world. A world that at times feel very akin to The Simpsons, with its buffoons, sweaty lawyers, self-inflated police men, and sharp-tongued authority figures. Every character is rendered with the manic energy and chaos that a farce like this demands. It’s not just Ink Toby who is a fool; everyone who engages with Ink Toby is a literal or figurative clown. This knife cuts both ways though, and any cartoonist reading Ink Toby will recognize the times when they have been just as foolish.
At the end the story when Ink Toby is bandaged from head to toe like a mummy we can’t help but laugh, as his friends and family do, at the predicament he has landed himself in. On one level it was said friends and family who put him there. On another it was his ridiculous devotion to success through Inktober that turned everyone against him. The story ends on a note of “Toby continued,” along with a self-portrait of Pratt in the exact same pose as Toby from the first page and we realize that given a second chance Toby will make the same mistakes all over again. So will Pratt, who has already started work on Ink Toby #2. So would any cartoonist. We just can’t help ourselves.
A.T. Pratt (W/A) • Self-Published, $5.00
Available to buy online from Domino Books
Review by Robin Enrico