On the surface, The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott is simply a coming-of-age story, a sweet and delightful portrait of the wild and wonderful people you can encounter in your early twenties, provided you’re amenable. As the title implies, the titular Billie Scott is about to go blind. That would likely panic just about anyone, but Billie has the additional complication of needing to complete ten paintings for a prestigious art gallery before a two-week deadline (imposed by her impending loss of vision) is up. So she forges ahead, out of her comfortable but claustrophobic life in a student flat and out into the world, finding people to paint as she goes.
Zoe Thorogood, not so far in age from Billie, has created a book that’s rich with detail without feeling fussy or overly refined. There’s a panel early on where the reader can see the bottom of Billie’s coffee mug, which features an intact UPC sticker, the sort of detail that grounds and humanizes a large and sometimes complicated story. The book’s backgrounds are filled with a cacophony of posters and people and mess, lending Billie’s adventure a tight and confined feeling, even after she’s left the borders of her tiny room. The book is largely in grayscale, with swaths of one or two accent colors that change with the scenes and help set the tone for every interaction. The art is lovely but doesn’t shy away from grime or the truly absurd, and the story is stronger for it.
Every character is drawn with a level of detail that tells you a lot about them from the moment they appear, but are still given space to surprise readers with their needs and motivations. Billie’s sketchbook fills quickly with drawings and observations about each one, guiding the reader to view them through her perspective as a young person who might not be aware of just how vulnerable she really is. Thorogood continues this delicate tightrope walk by giving Billie a supporting cast that’s neither completely threatening nor saintly, but simply human. Her roommates are friendly despite her long-term avoidance of them, and her encounters throughout the book run the gamut from warm to awful: She’s embraced by a chaotic group of drunk women at a bachelorette party, but she’s also robbed and assaulted. Overall, there are more people willing to come to her aid than want to take advantage of her, which feels honest to the world in which Billie lives.
It’s clear that her naïveté and unwillingness to trust people are both hindrances to her safety and progress, and Thorogood navigates this complicated idea very well. Billie is granted space to really screw up and make mistakes, but also given second and third chances—opportunities to not only reevaluate and redefine her goals, but also reach them. It’s a touching exploration of what it means to make art and how to find your people, and why both things are important. To quote Billie’s friend Rachel, it’s about why you should care.
There’s a period towards the end where the metaphors and imagery Thorogood has used thus far give way to something more explicit, and it veers towards preachiness. Billie herself even makes a joke about how cringe-inducing some of it is, which helps to defuse the awkwardness—but it’s definitely not as graceful as the vast majority of the book. It feels like Thorogood doesn’t trust the readers, or herself, enough to come to the book’s conclusions on their own, which is a shame; her storytelling up to that point is far more confident and deft than she seems to believe it was. Given this is her first published book, there’s no doubt she’ll continue to hone her craft and use her skills for future projects that will surpass even this great book.