Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sequart Reprints: The Baby-Sitters Club

I first encountered Raina Telgemeier's work in the form of a Meathaus-related comic called Getting The Sex Out Of The Way. In a book filled with unusual stylizations, her art stood out thanks to her clean line and cartoony figures. Later, I picked up one of her minicomics up without knowing who it was, and was again drawn in by her art, her ear for dialogue, and a certain grimness that offsets her cheerful style. There's something addictive about looking at her figures; they remind me a little of John Stanley's. Telgemeier's specialty seems to be comics involving teens and children, and her skill in getting across how they act and talk is considerable. I'd recommend checking out her autobiographical "dental drama" series: Smile. [This was subsequently published by Scholastic and was a best-seller. --RC] Telgemeier's work was noticed in a Friends of Lulu anthology by an editor at Scholastic, aka the people who publish Harry Potter books in America. Offering her a gig, Telgemeier suggested adopting the Baby-Sitters Club novels that she loved growing up. As a critic and reader, I can state unequivocably that I am not the intended audience for these books. That said, I was interested in how they scanned, how they looked and wanted to speculate on their impact.

It would seem that Telgemeier was the perfect choice for creating comics aimed at girls. Her cartoony, iconic style is warm and inviting for the eye. Her page composition is simple and uncluttered, yet she adds occasional decorative touches, especially for her chapter headers. The result is a nice bit of light entertainment, where one really feels compelled to turn the pages. In fact, the lightness of Telgemeier's style is a perfect complement to the often heavy-handed, After-School Special nature of the plots and characters. A moodier, more realsitic style would have made reading these books unbearable, but Telgemeier has a knack for keeping things light even when the book gets bogged down in issue-oriented teen drama, like divorce, parents' expectations, health issues, etc.

The first book, Kristy's Great Idea, details how four friends came together to form a baby-sitters club as a way of organizing their lives. Along the way, each character deals with their own conflicts, and conflicts with each other, before the group settles their problems at the end of the book. The second book, The Truth About Stacey, details their struggle with a rival set of baby-sitters and one character's struggle with diabetes. The characters are fairly easy to pick apart in terms of character traits: there's the tomboy, the mouse, the artistic one and the fashionista from New York with a secret.

The whole baby-sitting plot is obviously not in my frame of reference, but after talking to a number of women who grew up in the 80's, all of them noted how important these books were to them--especially because they were baby-sitters. Beyond that, the idea of a group of friends who were responsible and treated with respect by adults had to be enormously appealing. The stories were escapist, but the didactic element of the books was undoubtedly a plus for girls who wanted to see somewhat complicated feelings and situations resolved by girls who were likeable but not perfect--just like them, one presumes. The fact that friendships are shown as important but fragile, subject to hurt feelings and misunderstandings, is probably the most sophisticated element of the books.

Visually, it's clear that Telgemeier had a lot of difficult decisions to make in converting the books to comics form. With page after page of talking heads and lots of dialogue to transcribe, along with four or more characters to cram into a panel, Telgemeier often had to sacrifice backgrounds for the sake of clarity--especially since her audience was not necessarily one that could easily decode a complicated comics page. While this does aid clarity and story flow, it doesn't offer a more sophisticated reader a lot to look at in some of the panels. This is one reason why these comics cried out for color, although I'm sure that was a decision that wasn't in Telgemeier's hands. As much as I enjoy looking at Telgemeier's flowing lines, it seems as though she could have been greatly aided in getting across a lot of information with a nicely muted, pastel palette. Of course, all of that would have been irrelevant if Telgemeier's understanding of the body language and gestures of youngsters wasn't so assured. In particular, her ability to get across feelings through facial expressions with such a simple set of lines is at the heart of why these books work so well.

All told, the Baby-Sitters Club comics fill a void for tween girls. While many girls love to read manga, there's a dearth of material out there for them that reflects familiar interests, conflicts and situations. These comics fill that gap with an artist who understands the appeal of the original source material and succeeds in getting this across in a highly visually appealing package with a breezy narrative flow.

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