Boys and Comics
While sorting some review books into categories for future columns a few months ago, I realized the oddest thing: four of the young adult books in my stacks all involved boys who wrote and drew their own comics. I didn’t request any of these titles with a comic book related theme in mind -- the books were published months apart and deal with some very different ideas in addition to the comics, but it seemed too coincidental to pass up. Here was a chance to see just how young adult authors viewed teens and comics -- and more specifically, the kinds of teens who like comics.
In The Wonder Kid, author George Harrar takes readers back to 1954 when polio seemed to be stalking children in the streets and parents lived in fear that it would strike one of their own. Jesse is fine and healthy and thus bored by his mother’s insistence that he avoid playgrounds and pools in case the disease might strike. As the book begins he spends his time with his dog and his grandfather, while hoping to discover a way to please his demanding and all too often angry father. He is not prepared for the sorrow that will grip him when his grandfather passes away or the sudden ache that rises up in his legs one day and refuses to leave. It seems that even though he has done everything his mother told him to, Jesse still gets sick, and there is nothing any of them can do but find a way to cope with polio.
Although he has been a fan of comics and certainly draws all the time, the decision to make his own comic doesn’t manifest until the final third of the book. Collie is initially just one of Jesse’s classmates but she quickly becomes his closest friend when she is the only one who visits him after his diagnosis. She gives him a drawing pad and suggests he write a superhero comic to keep himself occupied. Desperate for something to do, Jesse latches onto the idea and creates “The Wonder Kid,” a boy who after being inflicted with polio finds himself with a new superpower. He uses this superpower for good, of course, but also to make a lot of snarky comments about how people treat the disabled. Jesse’s comic ends up getting picked up by a newspaper and bringing him some national attention. It is his therapy, in the best sense of the word, and between "The Wonder Kid" and Collie, he somehow manages to battle back from paralysis and not go crazy in the process.
By the end of the story Jesse is still wearing braces and occasionally using his wheelchair. Harrar did not want to suggest that polio was easy to beat and he keeps the book very realistic in that respect. As it turns out, the most difficult part of Jesse’s life is not his disease but his father, a man with very conflicted ideas about strength and weakness who alternately helps his son and torments him through his illness. As a typical 1950s mother, Jesse’s mom just tries to make everybody get along and convince her son that in spite of his father’s behavior, he still loves him. Jesse is not too sure of that for much of the book and even after he discovers some of the reasons behind his father’s attitude it still doesn’t make everything all better. Just like polio, not all family problems can be fixed in under 250 pages of middle grade fiction. The comic strip helps, Collie and his dog Gort help, but it is clear that “The Wonder Kid” is never going to have it easy, no matter how much he wishes he could.
Another boy with parental issues can be found in Jeremy Strong’s Stuff. Simon (otherwise known as “Stuff”) is a teenager with way too many things on his mind. He lives with his father and visits his mother but his life just got very complicated by the arrival of Dad’s girlfriend, her daughter and their man-hating ninja pet rabbit -- an “alien” invasion as far as Simon is concerned. He looks for support from his best friend Pete and girlfriend Delfine but it is in art class, when he is asked to draw a picture of the new girl Sky, that Simon finds the ultimate way to cope with his life. He spontaneously creates the superhero Skysurfer, an intergalactic tough chick. Simon ends up with an anonymous gig as the new creator of a comic strip for the school magazine. He gets to send Skysurfer against everything and everyone (artfully disguised of course) that drives him crazy. The strip ends up a huge hit and Simon finds himself with a colossal crush on his source of inspiration. Things are complicated by his girlfriend Delfine of course, and her very scary older brother. But Simon’s used to complicated, it’s why he’s so good at writing the strip in the first place.
There is a lot of teenage drama in Stuff, from Simon’s antagonism towards his father’s girlfriend (which only gets worse as she becomes more and more entrenched in his house) to the predictable fireworks when he finally breaks it off with Delfine. No one (except Sky) knows that he is behind the comic strip but it is quickly the talk of this school. Skysurfer takes on teachers and fellow students and of course the ultimate evil queen, “La Trifle.” Let’s just say it’s a good thing the sort-of-step mother doesn’t read the school magazine. (This is the kind of thing YA readers are really going to love about the story.)
In the middle of planning to run away, Simon makes a surprising new friend, finally sorts out the Delfine mess and even reaches a better understanding with his best friend Pete. It’s all dangerously after school special (perish the thought), but the comics are edgy, funny and just the right side of gross and readers will find them utterly irresistible. Simon is a good guy and it’s easy to see how Sky should fall for him. Usually, in all the high schools I am familiar with anyway, Simon’s arty coolness would not matter and he would have no chance with Sky and leave high school as sad and lonely as he was when he started. But then again we didn’t have a school magazine with a comic strip where I came from and so the power that sort of art can possess was completely beyond my teenage years. Simon manages to break out of his mold and find a way to cope, all through his creativity. It’s a very cool message to send out to teens and hopefully a few will hear it.
In Daniel Ehrenhaft and Trevor Ristow’s Drawing a Blank, eleventh grader Carlton is also struggling to keep his sanity (and his butt from getting kicked) at his very upper crusty New England boarding school. He has a secret too. Carlton has passed himself off as his father and under his name (which happens to be same as his own) he prints a comic about a superhero chick named Signy the Superbad in the local newspaper. The comic is the only thing Carlton thinks about as he barely manages to maintain any sort of relationship with is distant father and terribly misses his stepmother and half sister, who have recently left (his mother is dead). Carlton’s comic is his outlet for all his frustration, just as Simon’s strip is for him. Both teens are looking for something, but what Carlton finds is beyond anything he could have imagined.
The hook for Drawing a Blank is that Carlton’s father has been involved his entire adult life in a very old family feud that dates back to 1214 in their ancestral village in Scotland. He and the leader of the Clan Forba exchange letters and barbs over who is truly to blame for a lost treasure. This would be nothing more than a quirky family story except the leader of the Clan Forba gets serious about recovering that treasure and kidnaps Carlton’s father. Our hero, who is honestly not at all prepared to be heroic, must then find the treasure (which his father has hidden somewhere and does not fit into any description of treasure that a 21st century teenager would recognize), get himself to Scotland, solve a very ancient mystery and rescue his Dad. The fact that he meets a most interesting girl in Edinburgh who agrees to help (as she is an aspiring cop) just makes this all more interesting. Carlton can’t keep himself from drawing comics where Signy the Superbad saves everybody. And then, we meet the big bad and many secrets are revealed.
Okay, Drawing a Blank is a very funny, slightly farfetched, adventure story about the kind of guy who never, ever has adventures. Carlton is not, however, a geek (far from it, in fact), he’s just the typical bland American school kid who spends a lot more time wishing something would happen in his very dull life then actually going out and making something happen. And then his life explodes in a very bizarre James Bond kind of way and he has no choice except to rise to the occasion. It helps that with all that Signy the Superbad creating he has a bit of experience when it comes to facing crazy comic book villains (and the head of the Clan Forba fits that description). This is a quick, easy, fun read that will keep teenage boys in particular riveted from beginning to end. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read in the past year, that’s for sure and it certainly was the most lighthearted of all the books I read for this column. (And the ending rocks!)
Finally, the most widely reviewed title I read for this column is easily Barry Lyga’s The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl. Donnie, aka “Fanboy” has a fairly wretched life. On a good day he is completely ignored in high school, but early on things get rough and he becomes the daily target for a sadistic bully in P.E. class. He has one friend, Cal, who shares his passion for comic books but also happens to be an athlete so he barely acknowledges Donnie in school. At home, he lives with his pregnant mother and stepfather, whom he refers to as the “stepfacist.” The only thing that keeps Donnie going is his dream of completing his graphic novel, Schemata, and presenting it to real comic book creator Brian Bendis at an upcoming convention. He is convinced that Bendis will recognize Schemata for the genius it is and usher it on its way to publication. Comics will save Donnie, he is sure of it, because they are the only thing he has.
Fanboy is only part of this story though; the other half is his classmate Kyra, aka Goth Girl. She’s dark and disturbing, she might be a pathological liar, she has a social life even more pathetic than Donnie’s but miraculously, she sees him. In the midst of all the popular kids, the jocks, the ones who set the trends and make the rules, Kyra sees Donnie. And so, as their tentative friendship begins, he trusts her with the secret of Schemata. And Kyra believes. Donnie begins to really think maybe it will all happen like he always hoped it would; and the reader hopes it will as well.
So, of course, the comic book convention is a train wreck. Lots of stuff happens that sees Donnie and Kyra suffer a rift, and things with Bendis go so badly that I have to think Lyga is a personal friend of his which is the only reason he’s not screaming about his less than attractive portrayal in this book. Donnie survives it all, and Kyra does as well but what happens to their friendship is up in the air as the book ends. Of course it has never been a really honest friendship anyway so it’s no surprise that it sort of self destructs. The question is whether or not something will be built from the ashes, which very well might happen, but Lyga leaves that up to the reader to decide and by the end you’re so whipped by everything Donnie has been through, it’s kind of nice to let things lie for a bit and work out later.
Astonishing Adventures is by far the most serious and intense of these four books, and sometimes the sorrows in Donnie’s life can be a bit overwhelming. Of course his best friend walks away rather than talk to him in the hallway, of course he gets beat up in gym class while the teachers watch and ignore him, of course his mother is pregnant and thus won’t be going back to his dad and of course Bendis doesn’t save him from everyone else. And of course the school principal is a bastard who tries to intimidate and terrify Donnie in all sorts of ways reminiscent of a darker version of the “Guns and Gossip” episode of My So-Called Life. Lyga piles a lot on top of Donnie which by extension is piled on the reader. After all of this it was a bit hard to believe when a couple of good things do happen for Donnie because they don’t ring true -- nothing good can happen for this kid because he’s the kid that suffers, period. (What is really hard to take about this trend is the stepfather, who is a decent guy but Donnie can’t accept any good things in his life so for the longest time, he doesn’t let himself see the man for who he really is.)
But here’s the thing, Lyga has written a book that a lot of teen readers are going to identify with. It’s a book that will speak to all those moments when they feel outnumbered, ignored and hopelessly lost. They will see themselves in parts of Donnie (or maybe Kyra) and they will cheer every small victory that Donnie has, all the while expecting more bad things to happen because for most teens (even the officially popular ones) there are all too many days when life just sucks.
I was driven near crazy when I got done with these books by how every single author had to make sure that their protagonists were all largely abandoned by friends (if they had any to begin with) and left with just their love of creating comics to keep them warm. They could share their comics with no one, or only one or two people, they were all universally misunderstood by their parents, all had bizarre to depressing relationships with their fathers (or stepfathers) -- even in cases where the father figure was a decent guy, like in Donnie’s case. Their mothers were gone or preoccupied with keeping the father happy and there was a girl in each case, but she wasn’t always such a sure bet for loyalty and friendship. Basically they are physically injured, emotionally injured, psychologically injured screwed-up boys who love comic books.
Are these books all well written novels that young adults will enjoy? Sure they are. Some are more serious than others but each has a well told story to share and I can easily recommend them all. But honest to God, this long-time comics fan and reader is sick to death of reading one story after another where comic books equal weird. A graphic novel was nominated for the National Book Award this year, they are being written about depression, cancer, war and peace. Batman has starred in thoughtful titles about terrorism, land mines and child abuse. Can you find a stupid comic book? Yes -- but if you spend five minutes you can find a brilliant one as well. Who reads comics these days other than the sad, mad, boys in black portrayed here, who are largely hiding in the back row of every high school class and struggling with a home life right out of a teen melodrama? Hundreds of thousands of normal people, that’s who. Maybe if you read the endings of these four books first, then you’ll see that it doesn’t have to be so damn bleak and pathetic for fans of the genre. Don’t forget though that when you read about Donnie, Carlton, Simon and Jesse; some of us who love comics have always been okay. (And then just go visit your local comic shop and become a fan yourself!)
As always I’ll be blogging about books for both young and old at my site, chasingray.com. Come and comment on what you want to hear more about.
Cool Read: With his short short story collection, Severance, Robert Olen Butler explores the final ninety seconds of a person’s life after decapitation. Already reviewed in Bookslut for adults, I read this collection with the sharp conviction that its edgy subject and brave style make it perfect for teen readers. There are many names here, both real and fictional, that young adults will recognize and they will not be able to resist the risks that Butler takes by considering the final thoughts of Nicole Brown Simpson, Lady Jane Grey or a suicide bomber in 2003. This is exactly the sort of collection that will make the most jaded teen care about literature, or literary subjects. It may very well persuade them to reconsider the craft of writing and see it as more accessible and exciting then the standard eleventh grade English class fare. Butler has done something amazing with this collection, and I bet there are countless sixteen-year olds out there who will embrace it from beginning to end.