Friday, January 4, 2008

Stuck in the Middle: A good descriptor of the book, actually

I'll explain that title in a second, but first, here's a few (hopefully) brief thoughts about the movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Stardust, which I watched last night:

It's hard to talk about a movie like this, which I can't help but compare to the book. As is true in almost all cases, the book is better, but certain parts of the movie just grated on me. In some cases, it was small changes, like the lack of a better explanation for the wall separating the village from "another world". My wife wanted to know why they didn't just seal up the hole; the movie leaves out anything about the recurring festival, making it seem like the market is always there. In fact, it limits the "world" on the other side of the wall to the kingdom of Stormhold, which seems to make the world of the book much smaller. It's supposed to be all of Faerie over there, not just one mystical kingdom. And then there are scenes where they give too much information, perhaps out of the fear that viewers are stupid and won't be able to figure anything out for themselves. For instance, Tristan's mother gets turned into a bird by her witch master. We could have figured that out just by showing the bird with a chain around its leg, but they had to throw in a gratuitous bit in which the witch changes her back to human again so she can fetch some tea or something. There's plenty of other complaints (I could have done without Robert De Niro mincing about in petticoats, and the old lady makeup on Michelle Pfeiffer and her witchly cohorts was pretty unconvincing), but many of them come down to differences between the book and the movie, and that will get tiresome if I keep going over them. On the positive side, a lot of the imagery was pretty incredible, and it was an enjoyable enough story for the most part. I've just already experienced a better version of it. And while I understand the need for a climactic action set-piece, I like the simple elegance of the book's ending much better. Although, we did get a sword fight in which one of the combatants was a voodoo-doll-controlled corpse; that's a great, Matt Fraction-style idea right there. So, I guess it's a decent movie, but even without having read the book, I suspect it would be far from a classic.
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Okay, sorry to ramble on like that; let's get to the real purpose of this post:

Stuck in the Middle: Seventeen Comics from an Unpleasant Age
Edited by Ariel Schrag



The introduction page for this comics anthology seems to indicate that it is intended for kids of a middle-school age, saying "The real and fictional characters in this book survived their middle school years, and so will you." But the actual stories don't really all fit that goal; some of them seem to be aimed at pre-teens, but others are definitely meant for adults. It ends up being kind of a strange mixture, with readers stuck in the middle (ha ha, aren't I clever?) and wondering what to make of it. Of course, as it's proper to note in any discussion of a collection like this, anthologies always end up being a mixed bag, with some stories being better than others. But it might have been nice to make sure the goals of the stories were more focused; just because "name" artists like Daniel Clowes or Joe Matt have stories that ostensibly fit the theme, you don't have to shoehorn them in there to get a recognizable name on the cover.

But how are the various stories, anyway? The book kicks off with "B.F.F." by Vanessa Davis, in which she recalls a friend that ended up shifting into a different clique from her. They both had a crush on the same boy, but the friend ended up making out with him in front of Vanessa, which made her really uncomfortable in a way that she couldn't quite understand.



It's a good look at the awkwardness of that age (get ready to hear that phrase a lot), and while it's probably better understood by those who can look back on those years with a little distance, kids could probably read it and get the idea that they're not the only ones going through these weird emotional changes.

Next up is an excerpt from Joe Matt's book Fair Weather, in which he tells an autobiographical story from his pre-teen years. He comes off as a little asshole (as opposed to a big asshole, like in all his other comics), whining to his mom and grandma, yelling at his friends, and just being an obnoxious punk. The centerpiece of the story is probably when he discovers that his mom has thrown out all his comics, and you can't help but feel bad for him, but you also kind of feel like he deserves it.



It's pretty funny, and nicely-drawn in Matt's cartoony style, but it's definitely aimed at adults. We can often look back and realize what little jerks we were as kids, especially during that hormonally-charged period, but thirteen-year-olds don't have that distance.

Tania Schrag (the older sister of the editor) provides the next story, "Snitch". It's an entertaining (and presumably autobiographical) look at teen politics, in which the main character gets ostracized by the group of kids she normally hangs out with, seemingly just because the others in the group felt like being mean that day. Then she hangs out with a different group and worries that one girl's "boyfriend" likes her now.



It's pretty funny, in the way that these interpersonal conflicts seem world-shaking to the participants but so stupid and pointless to us. Will kids get that if they read it? I dunno.

Eric Enright's "Anxiety" is up next, and while it's an interesting look at the mental issues a teen might face if they don't feel "safe" at school, it's hard to discuss, mostly because I dislike the simplistic art:



The inexpressive protagonist doesn't want to go to school, and he comes up with excuses or makes himself sick to get out of it, so his mom takes him to her therapist. He's a pretty depressive kid, so hopefully he'll get help. Probably for adults, but who knows, kids might get something out of it. I'm guessing it helps just to discover that others are feeling/have felt the same way you do. But they would probably relate to it better if the art wasn't so ugly.

Ariel Schrag's "Plan on the Number 7 Bus" is another enjoyable story in which kids act like jerks. I assume it's also autobiographical; she tells a story about going on the bus with another girl to a third girl's house for the purpose of humiliating her because she isn't as well-developed as the other girls. Kids are mean. I like Schrag's depictions of them, with expressively cartoony faces and bodies:



The story ends in that stereotypical way, in which Ariel and her friend miss their stop and end up stranded at the end of the line. She's so scared, she vows not to be mean anymore, but the feeling evaporates by the end of the story. That sounds about right. As for the eternal question of whether kids would get the story, I say maybe. But probably not; it seems like another "what an asshole I was as a kid" story to share with fellow adults.

Here's one that seems more aimed toward actual kids: Jace Smith's "Tips for Surviving Middle School". It's basically a series of pointers about how to deal with pre-teen problems, illustrated with Smith's kinda-ugly art:



It gets a "meh" out of me, but maybe kids will take it to heart and use the tips to help them get through school.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Daniel Clowes' "Like a Weed, Joe". It's aimed squarely at adults; I suspect kids would find it boring and pointless. I've read this story before, in Clowes' book Caricature (which, incidentally, isn't my favorite of his; I prefer Ghost World and Ice Haven, among others). It's a nice look at a teen trying to figure out what kind of person he wants to be, relayed in Clowes' dry style. My favorite bit is when the kid, who is staying with his grandparents at a summer house on the beach, starts stalking a girl whose family is staying nearby. He keeps writing notes to her in the sand that get washed away, and she replies, but he can't make them out. After another (asshole) kid that he hangs out with steals her bathing suit, she leaves a note, and even though he claims (via narration) that it's unreadable, the image clearly shows that it says "What the fuck is your problem?". Comedy gold.

Next, Cole Johnson's "Tina Roti" is about a girl going to a new school when her dad changes jobs. As expected, she doesn't fit in:



She does make a friend though, so all is not lost. It's a decent slice of life, but there's not much to it. I kind of like Johnson's art, but it could be more dynamic, and the giant heads kind of bother me. Eh, whatever.

Nick Eliopulos is next, with "The Adventures of Batboy and Starling". It's another autobio, about his tenure as a bat boy for a local baseball team, a job he hates because the players pick on him. It's a bit fantastical, with him concocting escape plans like he's trying to break out of prison, and then trying to get fired. I dunno; the mood is weird, and it isn't helped by the flat artwork:



So, yawn for me, but who knows, kids might like it.

Next is Gabrielle Bell (whose book Lucky I liked quite a bit) with "Hit Me". Good for all ages, I think; it's another true story about Bell's childhood in which she gets embarrassed by her parents and gets picked on by another girl, then eventually gets into a fight. A nice slice of life; I especially liked her friend, who deflects insults by agreeing and taking them even further. And Bell's art is quite nice, with nicely-defined characters and environments, set off with grey-tone shading:



One of the best stories in the book, I think.

Dash Shaw's contribution, "Crater Face" is another good all-ages contribution, about moving into a new house and making friends with the girl who used to have has new room. He deals with self-consciousness about his acne, to which I can relate; I had the same problem at that age. The art is a bit stiff, but it's a nice, appealing story that shows kids being normal (and not jerks, believe it or not!).

Next is Lauren Weinstein with "Horse Camp", a story about her time at, you guessed it, horse-centered summer camp. Except the camp her parents sent her to turned out to be a Christian camp, and it rained most of the time, so she barely got to do anything horse-related. Plus, she got her period and had a generally awful time. Ah, to be young again! Weinstein's art is kind of scratchy and messy, but it does the job okay, effectively portraying her misery:



Kids will probably be able to get into it, just because they can commiserate with the character. But it's a good look at the occasional bad times of childhood; they seem awful at the time, but not so bad in hindsight.

Next, Jim Hoover provides "A Relationship in Eight Pages". It's one of the best-illustrated stories in the book, with a nice, expressive style:



In the story, the main character "goes out" with a girl (this consists mostly of giving each other a couple notes) for a few hours, before she breaks up with him in favor of another guy that her friends like better. Quick and amusing, and probably funnier to adults, since they can laugh at the ridiculousness of pre-teen relationships, but kids can probably enjoy it due too.

Robyn Chapman's "Never Go Home" tells the story of an abused kid who runs away from home (for a few hours, at least), only to end up under the gym bleachers at a school dance with a girl. It's a nice little slice of life, although not as cheery as some of the others in the book. Nice art too, and it can probably be appreciated by all ages:



Next is Ariel Bordeaux's "The Disco Prairie Rebellion of '81", which is about her fight against the horrible fashions of the times, which consisted of penis-headed haircuts, frilly shirts, and tight jeans. I don't know if kids will get much out of it, other than that fashions were ugly back then. Hell, that's pretty much all I got out of it. It's a decent, pretty fun story though.

Aaron Renier (whose Spiral-Bound I've been meaning to read for a while now) follows with one of the best tales in the volume, "Simple Machines". It's about his problems with Attention Deficit Disorder as a kid; he had trouble concentrating in class, preferring to draw crazy machines and stuff. Eventually, he found an outlet in an after school club designing props and backgrounds for plays. It also helped him make friends and learn to focus. It's a good story that adults will like and kids will hopefully find inspiring. Plus, it features Renier's nice, cartoony art, full of wacky doodles and endearing character designs:



Like I said, one of the highlights of the book.

Finally, Ariel Schrag contributes another story (that's the good part about being the editor), called simply "Shit". It's a scatologically funny tale about her having intestinal problems when staying with a friend on their family's houseboat. Kids will like it because of the gross-out factor, and adults can enjoy the awkwardness of youth. A nice capper to the book.

So out of seventeen stories, I count fifteen that seem aimed toward adults (or both adults and kids) and ten that could work for the kid audience. I think six of them could work pretty well for both kids and adults, so make of that what you will. Of course it's all just my opinion, so that could be worthless. But the question remains as to who the book is for. Unfortunately, I still don't have an answer, but it seems like many of the stories work better for adults than kids (or am I just saying that because I'm not a kid?).

But whatever; is the book any good on its own? I would say it's okay. I found it worth reading, but I'm glad I got it from the library rather than spending money on it. Your mileage may vary, but if you're open to re-experiencing some junior high memories, you might want to check it out.