Friday, September 14, 2012

The Show Must Go On: Drama

Raina Telgemeier's follow-up to her smash-hit Smile is Drama, a fictional comic based on some of her real experiences in middle school. As a young adult comic, this book is an unqualified success. One thing that Telgemeier likes to do as a storyteller is unveil her themes and explore her characters through a particular sort of linear process. In Smile, for example, her story is told through and around the issues surrounding her dental problems. The problem with that book is that the threads of her life weren't quite coherent enough to boil down in a story, and as a result there are odd tangents that feel out of place. In her new book, Telegemeier is able to explore characters and themes through the clever narrative construct of the life of a school play. She even throws in the conceit that the story we're seeing is a play, a funny device that she mercifully doe not overuse. It's just a clever reminder to the reader that what we're seeing is in itself a story, something constructed in a particular way with a beginning, middle and end.

I feel like Telgemeier's previous experiences in comics prepared her quite well for this book. Adapting the Baby Sitter's Club books helped her find ways to draw books with huge supporting casts and make each character look distinctive. Smile gave her ways to mine her own personal experiences and adapt them into narrative form. As such, Drama is a book filled with her own anecdotes and memories, but her experience was not that of Callie, the lead in this story. Instead, Telgemeier's memories provide an authentic framework for her characters and story to rest upon, allowing the reader to experience the unique highs and lows of managing a high school stage production while also managing teenage hormones. What Telegemeier does so deftly in this book is subvert and deflect reader expectations. Though the book begins with Callie being devastated after she kisses her long-time crush, only to be rejected when he gets back together with his bitchy and vapid girlfriend, Drama is as much about Callie's devotion to stagecraft and her friends than it is about relationships.

The first curveball is the introduction of twin brothers who also happen to sign up for the play. The boys are also Asian, a fact that is discussed briefly (especially regarding their academic expectations) but not presented as any sort of conflict. When one of the brothers is revealed to be gay, Telgemeier nonchalantly stakes out new ground in the young adult market, especially since his sexuality is very much presented in a matter-of-fact way and not presented as the lynchpin of a conflict. I'll be curious to see if there will be any blowback from the way sexuality and sexual identity is presented in this book from the usual conservative subjects, but I also get the sense that this book has the possibility to be important to a lot of young people for a long time.

Again, what makes this book appealing is the fact that Callie is not simply presented as a love-sick teenager, but as an energetic problem-solver who is far from perfect, but does her best to be a good friend. Much of the book does revolve around her friendship and potential romance with the other twin and the possibility of being asked to an eighth-grade dance. Telgemeier drops serious hints throughout the book that there may be a problem with one of the stage shows and that Jesse, the twin she has a crush on, would play a major role. Too shy to actually audition for the show despite his own musical talent, he does indeed help the show go on, but in a completely unexpected and hilarious manner. It's like Telgemeier decided to obey Anton Chekhov's old dictum about seeing a gun in the first act by turning the gun into a vase instead of having it fire a bullet; she consistently employs lateral thinking in subverting reader expectations in a way that feels completely organic as well as funny & charming. Speaking of charming, Telgemeier's line is as light and bright as ever. The dark and rich color palette she selects perfectly fills in the gaps in her pages in an unobtrusive manner. At the same time, her backgrounds have become richer and more detailed. Drama is a pitch-perfect story with unexpected complexity in its characters and a delightful number of surprises. I imagine it's going to sell a lot of copies and inspire a lot of people on its way to becoming a YA classic.

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