Last Exit Before Toll (2004)

One day Charles Pierce leaves home to go out of town for a work seminar. He’s vaguely dissatisfied with his life but doesn’t know why. On the way to the seminar, his car breaks down in a small town far from everywhere. It will take a week to get the part necessary to fix his car. Charles opts to stay in the town while repairs are made, and slowly finds the town affecting him in deep and meaningful ways.

This is an extremely affecting and unusual graphic novel, told in a way that is immediate and accessible. Charles Pierce is an average guy in his 30s, doing his workaday job and feeling vaguely unhappy with the road his life has taken. He has a big house, nice car, and a successful life that somehow feels empty to him. One small change in his life creates a shift in his perspective and makes Charlie see life from a completely different viewpoint, one that shakes him deeply.

Pierce discovers an America that exists in the country’s imagination, a landscape away from urban America, a small town where, as one character puts it, “This ain’t like other places you travel. Ain’t really no place at all. See, this place ain’t got a name. All it’s got is a highway nobody uses and a buncha locals who can’t do nothin’ but stay. And it’s OK that way. I’m sayin’ nobody belongs. You stay more than a couple days and you’ll know what I mean. The whole point is to pass through, and that’s why people ask. You’ll become a ghost, like me. Like all of them.” It’s an amazingly romantic vision of an America where hard work pays off, where people are generous, the pot roast is delicious, and a jack and coke costs a dollar seventy-five. This is America that we want to believe still exists, a country of people who aren’t in a hurry all the time and can take time for friendship. An America that isn’t about glory, power or money but about just doing what’s right and making deep connections.

This is a true graphic novel. Pierce grows and changes through the course of the book, and those changes are reflected in the fascinating ending. Pierce is confronted by a man from his old life, what Pierce does when confronted is unique and intriguing. What does the last page really mean? There is much room for debate in it.

Christopher Mitten’s art is perfect for this very unique story. He’s got a great eye for faces and ordinary settings. His art really tells the story of the changes Pierce makes in his life, subtly conveying the path he has made. He’s perfect at conveying quiet moments.

Final Word:
Last Exit Before Toll is one of the best original graphic novels in recent memory. It has no gunplay, no super-heroes and no bloodshed. But there’s a magic to the story, a unique and special feel to the story that touches a reader deeply.


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