Monday, October 7, 2013

Baited Expectations: The Cute Girl Network

Written by MK Reed & Greg Means and drawn by Joe Flood, The Cute Girl Network (First Second) takes on the notion of what it means to be in a bad relationship. It's about going with one's gut and own two eyes rather than the experiences of others. It's actually remarkably devoid of artificial twists and turns thrown in to give the potential lovers a conflict to battle against. Instead, Jack and Jane both have to battle the titular Network: a group of young, single women in the city of Brookport (a Portland/Brooklyn amalgam) who exchange information on their ex-boyfriends and stage interventions if necessary when they see someone going into a situation lacking what they deem to be crucial knowledge.

Jane is a skater who works in a skate shop, while Jack sells soup at a food court. What's interesting about the thrust of the book is that while neither character is very complicated, it's that very lack of complexity that draws them together. Jane faces rampant sexism at her job and at the skating park, a point hammered home in a sharply-written scene where she chews out a guy who first dismissed her ability to skate and then deigned to hit on her when she proved himself. Jack is lazy, spacy and clumsy. He's also kind, devoted and funny.

Jack's roommates include a true sexist pig of a bro and a devout feminist, but they all somehow get along because they all share their views openly and enjoy berating each other in a playing the dozens kind of way. I'm not precisely sure what the division of labor was between Reed and Means, but dialogue is Reed's specialty and a big strength of the book is its verisimilitude. It's that sense of being true to life that gives what would otherwise be cardboard thin characters some depth and heft. Still, one can't help but sense the writers of the book pushing back at the sheer shrillness of Network leader Harriet and her dogged insistence that she knows what's best for Jane. Jane is given an intervention by the Network and is taken around to meet several of Jack's ex-girlfriends, all of whom share hilarious horror stories about atrocious birthday presents, forgetting to show back up at an apartment for an anniversary dinner, talking to a girlfriend's mother about their sex life in excruciating (if oblivious) detail. Jack is aware that Jane is being fed this information and is on pins and needles regarding Jane's decision. Will she listen to the Network's (in the face of scold Harriet and her friend who also disastrously dated Jack) urges to dump him, or will she ignore the facts and take a chance?
Before and after images by Joe Flood. Note the level of detail.

The answer is not in the least surprising to anyone who read and saw that Jane consistently enjoyed being with Jack and that he made her feel good. Means and Reed suggest that in a way, the Network wound up subverting their own attempts to steer Jane away from Jack. First, Jane's stubborn and contrary nature made it unlikely for her to do something just because someone told her it was for the best, even someone she was friends with. Second, finding out someone's worst qualities from the very beginning can ground a relationship if there's a real attraction there and squash the fantasy construction we might have. Jane herself suggests that just because Jack wasn't right for these other women didn't mean he wouldn't be right for her, because she had little in common with the people she met. For his part, Jack gives an honest accounting of his many screw-ups but also provides context lacking in the horror stories; more to the point, he seemed motivated to try as hard as possible. Reed and Means give the book a romantic ending, but they also notably stay away from showing an epilogue, updating the state of the relationship in later times.

Another thing that makes the book work is the slightly scratchy and messy style of Joe Flood. Better known for drawing monsters and the like, the bit of grit he adds to the proceedings is not only appropriate to the characters, it helps steer the book away from the smooth, cutesy and more typical First Second house style. It especially helped that the book was in black and white, in part because Flood was more than happy to fill up his panels with the detritus and other details of a city. He didn't need bright, happy colors to fill in gaps. Reed and Means do throw him a bone by having him draw some pages from the Twilight-type series that's mocked relentlessly by the female members of the cast (yet secretly liked). I definitely sensed Reed's hand here, since she created a hit fantasy series for her book Americus.

Despite occasional foul language, I still see this falling squarely in a slightly upper level of young adult reading, like the sort of thing a 16 or 17 year old might enjoy. Ultimately, it's a well-crafted book that's not quite as interesting as Reed's prior book for First Second (Americus), even though it tries its best to provide a new, meta wrinkle on the romance comic. Indeed, many classic romance comics have plot twists that reveal how scummy an exciting bad boy really is, and end with the heroine tearfully intoning "If only I had known!" The Cute Girl Network shows how inside knowledge often reveals things that aren't as important to some as they are to others.

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