Work Life Balance
Work-Life Balance by Aisha Franz, published by Drawn+Quarterly, intertwines three stories of the existential struggle that is our modern work world. Each of the perspectives is very different: a self-employed ceramics artist, a white-collar office worker dreaming of social media side-hustles, and a freelance programmer seeking clients while attempting to pay the bills running deliveries on his bicycle. They are all drawn together by a single, mysterious therapist whose own surreal practices draw out the quiet madness in each of their lives.
Anita comes to the therapist after a rage-filled moment shattering much of her latest work, masses of ceramic mugs and vases that pay the bills but are not the art she wants to create. While trying to post the promotional images and being swept up in a torrent of algorithm-pleasing hashtags, she loses it.
She admits that she is jealous of her studio-mate’s success and seeks genuine recognition, but “genuine” seems to be the issue in a world where receptionists for art shows do not even care to see the artwork and Anita herself was curated out of her own midterm exhibition for not being ironic enough. Even the therapist proves untrustworthy when Anita peeks under a plant pot to find “Made in China” stamped there.
Sandra is living another dream. She works in an office so trendy that shoes are not allowed, only slippers, and guests are encouraged to try the ergonomic beanbag chair that envelops like the womb. The trendiness goes far too far with combination copier-printers that barely work and a job title so advanced even Sandra does not know what she is supposed to be doing. Instead, she focuses her energy on creating social media videos, which blend reality and fantasy to show just how artificial our real lives have become. Yet she is sure of herself, so that when the therapist asks if she has trouble dealing with rejection in a sexual harassment issue, she replies, “No, not at all. I’m just very assertive.”
Dex comes into therapy for research, hacking his way into an online virtual therapy system where patients build their own avatar with options of head-shape, noses, hairstyles, and robes and wait in a chat room. He had been asked to create such a system, which the company inevitably ripped off for an 8% proposal payment. Dex sees much of the inhumanity of the world where the therapist just sits, paid for the login time, and being stepped over by a man on a cell phone when he crashes his bike to the sidewalk.
The style in Work-Life Balance is all Franz’s own. It is not quite cartoon and not quite zine, but something in-between with representational figures that are exaggerated only at key moments to highlight the surreality of their world.
The style matches the characters well, giving them the flexibility of a representational character but then expanding into melting and blending, such as when the therapist slips Anita psychedelic drugs to help her calm down. In an era of social media and virtual meetings, Franz shows how easy it is for our expectations to become misaligned from a reality that is anything but.