Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Stuck In The Middle/Escape From "Special"

This article was originally published at sequart.com in 2007.
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The teen-age years are prime ground for storytelling because of the inherent drama that adolescents create in their own world. The transition from elementary school to junior high is perhaps the most awkward move of all, because the formation of one's personality is as much a reaction to the Other as it is a development of their own self. Staking out one's place in the social hierarchy is a complicated game, where conformity to norms is the rule and the systematic hazing of those who are different is the means by which the system is maintained. Comics are an especially ideal means for talking about this period, because the expressiveness of cartooning can be a perfect match for the outsized feelings teens experience.
Cartoonist Miss Lasko-Gross, in her semi-autobiographical comic Escape From "Special", learns that if you're not any good at playing the game after you've learned it, you may as well stop playing. Starting with her earliest memories as a child, Gross manages to create a narrative out of a bunch of short anecdotes. On an initial reading, the narrative feels like a house of cards, threatening to tip over into an unfocused mess. The further one goes in the story, however, the more one can see it cohere. The story begins with young Melissa realizing early on that she was a bit different from others. The realization that she can never know anything for sure sent her into a tailspin, and her wanting to put Barbie into a murder-mystery freaked out one of her friends.
It didn't help that she had trouble looking others in the eye, and that she was behind her classmates in being able to read despite an active and engaged mind. It also didn't help that she was actively resistant to any kind of authority. That combination got her kicked out of her school and placed in a new age feel-goodery, which had its own absurd rules. Its "no-negativity" rules extended to wearing black and eating mushrooms, since they grew in dark places. Of course, her parents sending all sorts of mixed messages had its own effect--they made her go to religious classes but also brought her along when their band went on tour. Things came to a head when she's placed in a special-ed class. While this was certainly humiliating ("Why don't they just call us retards and get it over with?"), it allowed her to see the game for what it was.
As she went into junior high school, she tried to fit in but realized "I'm outside of some mass cult of social agreement." There was a period of despair when this realization sank in, leading to thoughts of suicide and non-existence. It got to a point where part of her wanted to be "lobotomized" like the rest of her peers, but she knew it wasn't an option. When she was given an ultimatum by the girls she was trying to be friends with not to hang out with "druggies & losers", she saw that her choice was obvious, and that choice brought the freedom to speak her mind and stop pretending. Gross is skillful in how she arranged the anecdotes and gave them an accumulated weight, especially as she grew older in the story. What's most appealing about the book is her warts-n-all portrayal of her stand-in. The slightly grotesque and expressionistic art is a perfect match for the way Melissa looks at the world and herself. She's not an easy person for the reader to like--she's cranky, argumentative and prone to outbursts of rage. But her eccentricities are not affected, and the ways that she comes to terms with how to deal with the world while embracing what made her different made for an inspiring conclusion.
Stuck In The Middle is appealing because it provides a look at a variety of experiences and a variety of artistic styles to match. It's no surprise that Ariel Schrag put this volume together, because she's well-known as someone who started doing comics about her high school life while she was still in high school. She's currently finishing up a book on her senior year of high school after a two-year stint on the TV show The L Word. In this anthology, she got heavy-hitters Joe Matt & Dan Clowes to allow her to reprint some of their work. Clowes' "Like A Weed, Joe", is one of his best short stories, dealing with a boy's boredom spending a summer with his grandparents and his struggle to create a narrative framework for his life.
One of Schrag's stories, "Plan On the Number 7 Bus", is about the other end of the teen hierarchy. She was one of the ones on top who used her position to heap abuse on others, and the story involves a plan hatched by her and a friend to humiliate someone they knew. When they wind up in an unfamiliar part of town and they panic, Ariel vows "I cannot be mean"... though it seems doubtful that she'll be able to hold herself to that vow. Her sister Tania contributes "Snitch", about the fluidity of the hierarchy and how easy it is to slide up or down. After snitching on a boy who was torturing her in class, she becomes a social pariah, looking for a new group. When she finally finds it, she eagerly says "Well, that's what you get when you're a snitch" when she hears about someone else's tattling to a teacher. The harsh reality is that no matter how oppressive & unfair peer pressure can be, most kids can't see a way out of it and want to use it to their own advantage. Along the same lines, Gabrielle Bell has a piece that gives a slightly different perspective on an outsider's relationship with her classmates. In "Hit Me", Bell eschews the use of thought balloons or internal narration, making the story unique in this collection. We never see her inner thoughts as her classmates taunt her for wearing the same clothes several days in a row and smelling odd. When another outsider challenges her to a fight, Gabrielle wins and abandons another outsider friend when popular girls invite her to sit with them at lunch. The narrative distance Bell erects makes this an especially effective and devastating story.
There are sweeter stories as well. Dash Shaw's "Crater Face" involves a boy with acne problems who falls for a girl, and manages to overcome his own insecurities and reach out to her and reassure her about her own issues. "Never Go Home" is a Robyn Chapman story about a girl who is abused by her father who winds up at a school dance and sits under the bleachers. She's found by another girl, and several minutes of awkward silence & conversation ensue until the girl asks her to dance, leading our narrator to think "Maybe I'm OK. Maybe this could last. Maybe I'd never go home." Aaron Renier's "Simple Machines" talks about the author's ADD and tendency to escape into his own world with his drawings. When others reach out to him and he takes a risk by trusting and working with them in school projects, he's able to mix his old world of fantasy with his new friends. It's an enormously touching moment, one of the instances where life-long friendships can grow out of the crucible of adolescence.
Virtually every story is at least worth reading, though Nick Eliopulos' tale about a batboy and a baseball mascot doesn't fit very well with the other stories. Jim Hoover's style is a lot slicker than the other artists', and his entry feels a lot more pat and less nuanced than the other stories in the collection. On a visual level, they at least do offer something different to look at, compared to the less "realistic" styles of most of the artists in the anthology. Schrag obviously took great pains as an editor. She balanced upbeat & downbeat stories, stories by men & women, and gave everyone plenty of room to tell their stories. She added touches like a yearbook-style "autograph" section and photos of the contributors from middle school (the photos of Clowes & Matt are especially amusing). The variety of stories that she gathered was crucial, because it's easy for a reader to grow exhausted by a "theme" anthology if the editor doesn't do a good job getting as many different takes on a subject as possible. Unlike many anthologies where the stories are too short to really make an impression, there's a meatiness to this 200-page volume that makes it an enormously satisfying read.

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