Monday, August 15, 2016

D&Q: Pascal Girard, Jillian Tamaki

Nicolas (updated edition), by Pascal Girard. I wrote about the first edition of Nicolas here. I've always had mixed feelings about Girard's work, as his tendency to play up his less flattering qualities for comedic purposes gets to be so extreme that he transforms into a loathsome George Costanza-style character, divorced from reality and polite society. Nicolas avoided a lot of that artifice while still being self-deprecating, as it was an honest look at the ways in which we process grief are difficult and mysterious. The new edition offers a twenty five page addendum, picking up roughly ten years after the last book. If the first edition was about Girard finally coming to terms with his grief and allowing himself to feel it, then the update is about his shaky relationship with his youngest brother, Joel. Girard was three years older than his brother Nicolas, who died at the age of five, but Joel is a full eight years younger than Girard. Girard blamed that distance in age for why he wasn't close to his brother, but he explores some of the real reasons in the story.

While turning the deceased Nicolas into a saint, he ignored the sibling who was actually alive. The reason is obvious: when he was growing up, he wasn't able to process the death of Nicolas, so it follows that establishing an emotional relationship with his younger brother simply wasn't within his capabilities. It was too emotionally risky. Girard also tracks down something else: Nicolas served as a totem protecting him against the generalized anxiety disorder that developed shortly after his brother's desk. From writing his brother's name on his foot or hand to looking at that photo in his wallet, Nicolas served as a way to calm him down. However, reifying his dead brother not only prevented Girard from properly mourning him, it directly interfered with growing close to his youngest brother. Girard addresses all of these issues as he slowly comes to understand how much his brother loves him, something he always tried to ignore. Getting closer is something that came in fits and starts, as he agreed to be his brother's best man but wasn't quite ready to make a speech about him, but in the end he initiates a get-together. It's a beautiful, powerful ending that carries a powerful truth: we are always potentially growing and changing and are never finished products. It can take years sometimes to get at certain truths, but a willingness to be open to them and work can yield the sort of results that Girard discovered in the course of his growth and the creation of this book. The wobbly and ragged nature of his line is a mixture of his current style and a reclamation of that initial, threadbare and spontaneous line that he used for the first edition of the book. The new section complements and adds to the complexity of the overall work in unforeseen and serendipitious ways.

SuperMutant Magic Academy, by Jillian Tamaki. Adapting her web series of the same name, Tamaki gets at the heart of what is compelling about X-Men comics and Harry Potter novels: the parts when the protagonists sit around between adventures and try to cope with life as young adults. At the same time, the magical/superheroic elements of the book are almost incidental to the emotional core of the book, and can easily be seen as over-the-top metaphors instead of the real meat of the story. As such, Tamaki manages to send up the genre trappings of her book while at the same time writing one of the best, most true-to-life YA stories I've ever encountered. Each of the members of the ensemble, no matter how exaggerated or absurd they might seem on the surface, feels like a real person. So much so that each character feels like a slightly different person of someone that Tamaki knew.

There is a barebones plot as the story follows the students through the school year until it ends with prom. Most of the book takes the form of one to two page vignettes with a gag, focusing on character moments instead of trying to sculpt a more fluid narrative. It's snapshot after snapshot, and the character of her line is different on each page. Sometimes, Tamaki a thin line in her fully-rendered style. On other pages, it's a cruder, thick line. Other pages are just lightly-rendered pencil or a quickly-sketched pen. The different approaches allow for a level of spontaneity that's unusual in a book like this, as the characters seemed to provide Tamaki with endless inspiration for gags that she tried to get down as quickly as possible.

The book's emotional heart and soul is Marsha, a frumpy, bespectacled girl who's secretly in love with her best friend Wendy. Marsha is caustic, kind, confused, depressed and hopeful all at once. She tries a few times to tell Wendy how she feels (including an aborted attempt where she accidentally tells her how she feels and says "KIDDING!"), including a hilarious scene where Marsha knocks on Wendy's door and simply blurts out "I'M GAY". Wendy's response in trying to be a good ally is so painful as to be excruciatingly funny, especially when Marsha hints at her feelings with a long soliloquy about Wendy's hair. Wendy uncomprehendingly asks, "Do you want to borrow my shampoo?"

Tamaki hits on queer issues, appearance-based issues (all of Wendy's pronouncements about never giving up and whatnot are put in dubious light by some of her friends because Wendy is beautiful), and class-based issues. Some of the characters are a bit more wacky or cliched than others, like Frances, the guerilla performance-art weirdo or Trevor, the burn-it-all-down troublemaker who doesn't know what he wants. (In his case, he is assisted by having laser beam eyes.) There's the running gag of Everlasting Boy, an immortal who is constantly being depicted as being chewed up and spat out by the world again and again, but always coming back. His strips are palate cleansers in a way, acting as blackout gags in between interpersonal drama. On the other hand, there's Cheddar, the successful jock who's lazy in class and tries to use his charm to get out of as much work as possible. While smarmy at times, he's also genuine and enlightened in unexpected ways, and the story's (anti)-climax puts him and Marsha together in an unusual circumstance as both decided to skip prom and wind up facing epic danger. Tamaki respects and understands all of the rules and tropes of genre fiction but only employs them when it advances characters or is good for a joke. That insider understanding is key to the success of the book, allowing her to only superficially focus on the genre elements of the story and plot and instead focus almost entirely on character and humor. In essence, it's the inverse of most genre fiction, and Tamaki has crafted a book that's all the best parts of it.

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