It’s been a long while since serious comics readers felt the need to point out that sequential art has come a long way, that much of it is sophisticated and both narratively and emotionally complex. (Actually, a lot of serious comics readers never felt like they had to apologize for their reading choices, but at some point there were those who started pushing back against perceptions.)
In the last several years titles like Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost, Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe’s Peanut, Raina Telgemaier’s three books, Smile, Drama, and Sisters, Faith Erin Hicks’ Friends With Boys and many, many others have explored aspects of adolescent and teen life with sensitivity, humor, and honesty. And they fly off the library shelves.
And it seems to keep getting better. Four recent titles come from four corners of the comics universe, but each of them expresses something essential and does it in a touching and unique way.
This One Summer
Last year’s This One Summer by the Canadian writer Mariko Tamaki and her cousin, Jillian, a New York-based illustrator, follows Rose and her friend, Windy, through a summer vacation at the lake. Rose’s age is not specified, but she seems to be perhaps 11 or 12. Windy is a year and a half younger but has been Rose’s summer friend since she was 5.
The novel opens as a somewhat hazy recollection of an annual beach visit: “Okay. So. Awago Beach is this place.” The girls swim, watch horror movies on DVD and then are frightened to go out at night, make s’mores over a bonfire, buy Twizzlers at the store.
A strong blue tint to the artwork can be disorienting at first, but it serves well to convey the dreamlike quality and laconic pace of the events.
But darker and heavier themes gradually infuse the story. Tension grows between Rose’s parents, at first unspecified, then revealed to be related to a miscarriage. Dad takes off and returns to the city, leaving Rose with her emotionally fragile mother. The girls learn more about the thoroughly unpleasant relationship between Duncan, the boy from the general store on whom Rose has a bit of a crush, and his girlfriend, a historical interpreter at a Huron Village, who is pregnant.
By the end we’re left with an intensely rich and poignant evocation of the threshold of adolescence, where the carefree merges inexorably into the confusing and sad and sometimes dark. The story has its share of coarse language and frank discussion about evolving feelings and understanding of sex. Parents of tweens might want to give it a read before passing it along.
El Deafo is a fictionalized memoir by Cece Bell focusing primarily on her elementary school years after she lost her hearing in a meningitis infection.
It’s her own story, though she explains in an author’s note that she changed the names of some characters and merged some others to improve the story. “But the way I felt as a kid,” she says, “that feeling is all true.” An author photo shows Bell in elementary school, with bowl haircut and the wires of her hearing aid descending to her denim jumper.
Bell is a deft hand at dramatizing typical friend drama but she integrates into it some of the significant challenges Cece faces through her disability. “Mom thinks ‘special’ means ‘great,’ or ‘cool.’ If only!” she laments at one point. “Special means ‘You’re not like me! You’re weird!’ I hate that word.”
Much is made of the difficulties of lip reading (“moustaches and beards are bad news”), as well as the necessity of visual cues and context clues.
Fourth grade Cece creates the character El Deafo after receiving a new hearing aid, which gives her the “superpower” of hearing voices loud and clear.
The style of the drawings is very simple and little emotion is conveyed. But the characters all appear to be rabbits, a clever device that calls attention to the ears. And when Cece is without her hearing aid, she portrays herself in a vague bubble, emphasizing her separation and loneliness.
From the world of more well-known superhero comics, we have a reboot of Ms. Marvel, who is now Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani-American living in Jersey City.
Kamala lives at home with her loving but strict parents and her strongly religious brother. She struggles to find a place in the world of her high school friends while honoring her family and her faith. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” she tells Captain Marvel, who appears to her in a vision after she mistakenly tastes a vodka drink at a party. “I don’t know who I’m supposed to be.”
After taking on the shape-shifting powers of Ms. Marvel, Kamala discovers that her superhero costume is uncomfortable (it gives her an “epic wedgie”), that “putting on a uniform doesn’t make you brave.” But it’s Kamala’s choice to take up the mantle of her newfound responsibility and learn how to use her powers. “Good is not a thing you are,” she tells herself. “It’s a thing you do.”
The portrait of Pakistani-American culture and religion is richly developed, the characters diverse and balanced. The first volume, No Normal, published in February 2014, was written by G. Willow Wilson, an American writer who has lived in Egypt and is Muslim. Additional volumes have already been published.
The Shadow Hero
Yet another variation on the superhero theme comes from veteran comic writer and artist Gene Luen Yang. Last year’s The Shadow Hero is the most intriguingly strange of the titles here.
Nineteen-year-old Hank Chu works in his parents’ grocery in a fictionalized mid-20th-century Chinatown. But his mother wants more for him; she pressures him to become a superhero, like the famous Anchor of Justice, and take on the corruption and extortion in their neighborhood.
Possibly because of the time period, especially in the earlier part of the book, there are many explicit references to common Asian stereotypes and slurs which can be off-putting, though Yang himself is an American born to Chinese immigrant parents.
Cultural awareness and pride is a central theme. As Red Center, the daughter of the crime boss Ten Grand, tells Hank, “So it’s true then! With your superpowers and fancy costume, you’re like the Anchor of Justice, only you’re one of us!”
As in other Yang stories, there are roots in Chinese mythology and culture, in this case the origin of Hank’s mysterious power.
Yang explains in an afterword that the book is a tribute to artist Chu Hing’s Green Turtle stories for Blazing Comics in the 1940s. Though Sonny Liew’s quirky drawings are obviously contemporary, they evoke Chu’s classic style. An original Green Turtle comic is reproduced in the back of the volume.
Hassett is librarian at Luther Jackson Middle School in Fairfax County.
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