Aisha Franz’s Work-Life Balance Review: Richly Comedic Takedown of the Wellness Industry

The three protagonists of Work-life balance, the bitingly funny new graphic novel by Aisha Franz, are connected by one woman: a therapist called Dr Sharifi, whose long-running comic-style eyes can never be seen behind her round, oversized glasses. Dr. Sharifi dresses a bit like Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (aka the Princess of Polka Dots) and wears her black hair in a whimsical top knot, both of which hint from the start that she might be more interested in posing than a really listens to anyone’s problems – and yes, he always watches his watch, interrupting his customers mid-sentence if necessary. But her obvious boredom with their various moods (“the therapy package your employer bought is finished,” she’ll tell them, casually reaching for her cell phone) is only one side of the story. Flip that over and we find her true passion, that she is emphatically herself—and oh, if only she had more time to spend with this charming of patients!

Where does self-obsession start? And where, exactly, does it take us? Franz, German cartoonist and illustrator whose latest book, shit is real, it was a Los Angeles Times a book award finalist, he has an expert eye for the neuroticism that arises from the digital age, and in this comic (translated from the German by Nicholas Houde) pursues the relentless optimization and unbridled vainglory it encourages in us. Who can resist the onslaught of these things? Who would not be overwhelmed by tiredness and envy? Of course, none of his characters can do that, which is why they end up seeing Dr. Sharifi.

Anita wants to make ceramic creations that are as sought-after by the art world as her fellow student, but she has to make do with making whisk bowls on Etsy. Sandra is an aspiring wellness influencer who can barely get out of bed in the morning—her Insta Reels of hers will just have to wait—and who puts all the perky energy she has into sexual harassment in the office where she works as an administrator. As for Dex, having had a project turned down by a friend who works at a hip startup – the more outwardly warm and liberal the workplace, the more cold and unforgiving the bosses – he spends his time hacking and working as a courier by bike.

Dr. Sharifi does neither of them any good, and their angry and anguished encounters with her are richly comical; if you are suspicious of therapy or have had a bad experience doing it, you will cherish every moment. But while Franz’s style as a cartoonist is always exuberant, there is also desperation in the gap between what his characters present to the world and reality, and every reader will recognize this. Franz replicates this duality visually, some of his pages appearing as mere sketches and others as solidly colored and complete. His belief (it may be his obsession) is that modern life is lonely. But as she also tells us, the antidote can’t lie in the wellness industry or any of its associated offshoots—those things are products, not cures—and the jokes she makes at their expense are both well-pointed and hilarious.

• Work-Life Balance by Aisha Franz, translated by Nicholas Houde, is published by Drawn & Quarterly (£18.99). To support the Keeper AND Observer order your copy at Shipping charges may apply

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