Sunday, December 21, 2008

Skim: Because she doesn't like milk?

So, will this book make it onto "best of 2008" lists because it's good, or because of the semi-controversy involving it?  Not that it really matters...

Written by Mariko Tamaki
Art by Jillian Tamaki

Is this your typical teenage coming-of-age story?  Well, it's not especially unique in its themes, but the well-defined characters and evocative artwork give it a flair that definitely makes it worth reading.  And out of those two aspects, the art really lifts the book to the next level; Jillian Tamaki brings a wonderful sense of mood and atmosphere to her cousin Mariko's story, adding a wintry beauty to the proceedings that matches the emotions on display.  Actually, "display" might not be the right word, since those emotions are very repressed and hidden, only becoming known through the main character's diary entries, which are delivered via caption.  But while the character is reserved and withdrawn, the art really brings her inner emotions to life via her surroundings.  It's a thing of beauty to watch.

As mentioned, the story here is nothing new, a fairly typical thing about a teenage girl learning about love and friendship, seeing her life change as she matures.  Kim Cameron is a student at an all-girls' school in 1993, and she and her best friend Lisa are what would be known today as "emo", the social outcasts who are into Wicca and like to mock all the popular kids.  Things get thrown into upheaval by a few incidents, the most dramatic of which would be the suicide of a popular girl's ex-boyfriend, and her own resulting suicide attempt.  This throws the culture of the school into an upheaval, as the students and faculty go on a touchy-feely spree of counseling and attempts to "celebrate life".  This runs counter to teenagers' natural impulses of cliquishness and popularity contests, and Kim and Lisa can't help but mock it even if it is well-intentioned.

At the same time, Kim (who usually goes by the titular nickname; when asked why people call her that, she responds, "Because I'm not," whatever that means) develops a crush on her English teacher, the hippie-ish Ms. Archer.  That first teenage crush can be an intense experience, but when it heralds a possible future of being even more of an outcast than before, the heart-pounding is off the charts:

As time goes by, it becomes obvious that Ms. Archer is going through problems of her own, but Kim never learns what they are.  And there are plenty of other things to figure out as well, like how much stock she should put in all this Wicca stuff.  An early scene sees Lisa and Kim attend a meeting of a coven with Lisa's sister, but it seems kind of lame, with a bunch of strange, similarly dressed adults standing around a fire and talking about spirits.  And it turns out that it doubles as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  But Kim soldiers on, reading books and trying her best to keep to the spirit of her beliefs.  Lisa, on the other hand, seems to drift farther and farther away, becoming interested in boys and hanging out with other girls.  And Kim ends up befriending Katie Matthews, the girl involved in all the suicide controversy.

It ends up being a story about people drifting apart and others coming closer together, the fluid state of personality that adolescents experience, and forming relationships where you can find them.  There's not much of a dramatic arc; the story seems to be all middle, with little in the way of a beginning or ending.  But that's teenage life; things keep going on, whether you want them to or not.  You might not understand why people act a certain way, but you have to make the best of it.

This sort of thing might not work for everyone; it's less of a conventional plot and more of a character piece, examining the tumultuous teenage years and how we react to them.  But whatever the reaction to the plot might be, there can be little but astonishment when it comes to the artwork.  Jillian's linework is assured and confident, while seeming sketchy and easily done, and the greytones add a nice feeling of depth; she defines the characters perfectly, and makes the faces, hair, and bodies seem very real while keeping the depictions simple, and adding just a hint of cartooniness:

I especially like the way she depicts clothing. Often, when patterns are drawn in comics, a piece of art is pasted in place, making a character seem like an outline cut out to view something on the page below.  But Jillian doesn't take that route; her depiction of the schoolgirls' plaid skirts gives them a feeling of movement that the other style lacks:

And the backgrounds are just beautiful, full of inky streaks and fluid linework:

They're some of the best depictions of foliage that I've ever seen in comics, perfectly capturing the feeling of the seasons of the book, not to mention the emotions of the main character.  It's absolutely gorgeous to look at.

So it probably depends on your tolerance for confused teenage emotions and relationships, but even if you just want to view the pretty pictures, this book is definitely worth reading.  Sure, the artwork might be king (or queen), but the well-developed characters work really well for the story being told, so don't discount Mariko's contribution to the book's success.  But really, Jillian is the breakout talent here; with anyone else providing artwork, it wouldn't work nearly as well.  Keep an eye on this one; if there's any justice, she's going places.  But for now, this is the place to see what she can do.  Hopefully it's only a hint of what is to come.

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