Monday, April 29, 2013

Truth and Fiction: Madtown High 1-3

Whit Taylor is a thoughtful, interesting up-and-coming cartoonist who's mostly done autobiographical work. However, I think she's really found her voice with her high school vignettes in Madtown High, most of which are fictionalized accounts of real events. While based on her own experiences as a new kid at a high school, Taylor smooths out these events with a solid narrative structure and cohesive characterizations. She's careful to eschew easy cliches about popular kids and jocks while writing with affection about the group of oddballs she found herself associating with. Giving these life events a narrative structure allows Taylor to shape them into vignettes that flow into and out of other stories, building continuity details like any good series. It also gives her a chance to show off her comedic chops, because many of these stories are very funny. That humor is mined out of the humanity of her characters and the way she provides the kind of small, intimate details that allow a reader to get to know them in a short number of pages.

In particular, Taylor's tales of particular teachers both humanizes them and allows them to be larger than life. Their orchestra professor was obsessed with the violin player from the rock band Kansas and hoped to get him to appear as a guest at their spring concert. When he doesn't show, he's crushed. Taylor gets at the way teachers burn out and often put their hopes on the most trivial of events as a way of breaking through the crushing despair of having to teach so many apathetic children. In another issue, her account of  her AP Biology teacher going through a midlife crisis was fascinating, funny and a little sad, as his own last-ditch attempts at doing something meaningful as a teacher flamed out, leaving him to quit the profession. Yet another teacher proved to be the unlikely recipient of the affection of Taylor's stand-in Wren and several other girls, despite (really, because of) his many, many quirks. Having his photo turned into a cake was a demented master stroke, especially when the recipient kept the bit of frosting with his face on it frozen for months.

Taylor's own stand-in is a little naive and geeky, but not in a stereotypical sense. Wren is great at Science League (an interschool series of contests), develops a crush on her brother's bandmate, is clueless as to why dressing up like a beaver is probably a bad idea, and makes cheesy videos with her friends. Taylor is especially adept at taking a reader inside a world where hanging around a group of strange people (not all of whom are close friends) tends to create inside jokes and highly ritualized behavior of the off-kilter variety. While Taylor's line is crude, something about this setting frees her to draw with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, especially the odder-looking and acting characters. If anything, I'd like to see her art get even more stylized with regard to her characters, rather than try to stay within naturalistic bounds. Taylor really seems to have found her niche with this kind of storytelling, and she produced a book's worth of these strips that hold together quite cohesively while still working at an individual level as a series of discrete vignettes.

Update: Whit was kind enough to send along the fourth and fifth issues of Madtown High. These issues wrap up the series, and it was clear that she really got on a roll as she built up the series' continuity and characters. That bit of world-building added a level of depth and complexity to the series in a manner that I thought was charming. Taylor has a way of addressing typical high school concerns and activities in a way that feels real and lived-in. For example, "Sleepover" is about her female friends coming over and inevitably talking about sex, with some of her friends being more experienced than others. She was then able to turn that into a punchline. Taylor also talks about being both a nerd (competing on a physics team) and a jock (detailing her assorted forays into team and solo sports, with shot put being her best sport). There's also a specificity of time and place: it's late 90s in New Jersey, and the influence of grunge and straight-edge culture were a big deal for her peer group.

The fifth issue sends us into her senior year with cultural touchstones like 9/11 (and the ways in which various adults at her school reacted) and personal touchstones like a senior "lock-in", prom, a trip to the Jersey Shore to get drunk and graduation. Each of them is filtered through her unique sensibilities, with the "lock-in"'s discussion leading her to admit out loud that she felt different and awkward because she was one of the only black kids at a mostly white school. The Shore trip was interesting because these were straight-edge kids who decided to get drunk for the first time as a rite of passage. Taylor doesn't sensationalize or oversentimentalize high school, but she also recognizes that, for her, it was a time that was extremely important and satisfying for her, thanks mostly to her group of friends. I think this story will ring true for many.

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