bttm fdrs coverby Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore. Fantagraphics, 2019. 300 p. ill. ISBN 9781683962069 (hardcover), $24.99

Reviewed August 2020
Katy Parker, Humanities Liaison Librarian for Fine Arts, University of Texas at Austin

Author Ezra Claytan Daniels elicits discomfort from the first page of BTTM FDRS; his readers are immediately confronted with a combination of horror and socioeconomic ideology. Darla, an up-and-coming fashion designer, moves back into her childhood neighborhood in search of affordable housing and a connection to her roots. She manages to find an apartment in a building known as the castle, and uncovers the gruesome truth about what lies beneath the surface of the community known as the Bottomyards.

Daniels juxtaposes the idea of the classic science fiction monster with the complicated real-life monsters of gentrification, allyship, and tokenism. As Darla moves through the motions of relocating to what she and her friend Cynthia deem a “rough neighborhood,” she wages an internal war with herself on what level she is entitled to claim this neighborhood as her own. All the while, she does not notice the monstrous tendrils creeping out of every crevice of her apartment, waiting to attack. Nevertheless, It is difficult to determine who the real monsters are in this story.

While Darla was born in the Bottomyards and feels that being a woman of color from humble beginnings would grant her automatic acceptance upon her return, her friend Cynthia, a self-proclaimed Black ally, supports Darla’s move but tries to capitalize on her friend’s new rough lifestyle. Daniels explores several levels of privilege at play. There is the white experience of creating a novelty out of Black life and Darla’s privilege in assuming her being Black entitled her to seamlessly take residence in the neighborhood. Each party knows very little of the hardships and reality of the other. As the tension of this dichotomy plays out, the real monster grows.

Ben Passmore’s illustration style and color choices beautifully augment the drama and horror of Daniels’ story. As the mood or lighting of the story changes, so does the color palette, allowing readers to subtly detect the change in tone. Passmore’s use of high-contrast monochromatic layouts and deep shadows keeps the reader on edge throughout. Passmore also has an undeniable talent for bringing the monstrous to life with exaggerated character and creature design. He brings an almost slithering and skin-crawling textural reality to the horrors that lie inside the castle at the heart of the Bottomyards.

This title is highly recommended for adult graphic novel collections based on its unabashed take on contemporary social issues and its striking artistic styles. It is not recommended for youth collections due to graphic, sexual, and drug-related content.