Friday, December 23, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #23: Melissa Mendes

Melissa Mendes has a gift for writing comics about the lives of children and their families that have a powerful but restrained emotional resonance without relying on sentimentality. In Lou, her second book, Mendes expands her narrative range from a single character like in her first book, Freddy Stories, to a wider array of children and adults. She has a remarkable knack for getting into the heads of each of their characters and considering what their day-to-day lives and mindsets are, and how living with other people can be an incredibly frustrating experience. The titular Lou is a tomboy who is obsessed with animals, looks up to her metalhead older brother Eddie and has a love-hate relationship with her younger brother John. Initially, the plot seems to revolve around the simple notion of how the three will survive a summer together without getting on each other's nerves too much, but Mendes introduces some real danger as a way of testing the family's strengths and weaknesses.

Structurally, what's interesting about the book is that instead of one central plot, every member of the family has a whirling set of emotions and activities that sometimes affect the others. Lou is desperate for a puppy, and when her mom Annie vetoes the idea, Lou reacts histrionically, even refusing to speak to her mother. Lou asserts her independence by playing in an abandoned movie theater with her friends, one of whom has a crush on her. John is tired of being low man in the pecking order and wants to assert his agency--which he does by running away from his house. Eddie is well aware that his pizza parlor boss Joey is in trouble with some criminals, but he steps up as a responsible person and takes over the business after Joey disappears. Annie feels increasingly worn down by her kids' incessant squabbling as well as the fact that the family is barely scraping by. She feels betrayed by her husband Eddie when he goes ahead and gets the puppy anyway. Eddie is simply trying to make everyone happy, a mostly impossible task, but he does his best and even has some successes. All of these plotlines are equally important, and they converge at the end when the kids and Joey wind up in the abandoned theater, with Joey thinking about holding them hostage.The minicomic translated well to book size, adding greater clarity without sacrificing the surprisingly fast pace of the story. My favorite aspect of Mendes' character design is how she draws hair: Annie's messy curls, Eddie Sr.'s beard, Eddie Jr.'s long, stringy hair, John's shock of blonde and Lou's short, straight cut. Without exaggerating the line too much, Mendes created an instant and expressive manner to identify her characters, allowing her the opportunity to provide nuance in the form of expressive eyes and body language.

The one problem with the book is that as easy and natural as it is for Mendes to tell stories about a family and have it feel authentic and warm, it's clear that her lack of experience writing the action part of the book made it feel a bit clumsy and jarringly melodramatic. Fortunately, the other 95% of the book is spot-on, beautiful and ambitious. The way she showed the family fraying and then coming back together was well-done, as each member of the family put aside self-recrimination to focus on the task at hand. Having the pet as the stand-in who got harmed felt unnecessary, even if the ending was ultimately a happy one. It wouldn't have cheapened the tension one bit to have had the situation resolve itself without violence, nor did the pet dog need this to make himself valuable to the family. He was already an important part of the family. Still, it was interesting to see Mendes push herself as a creator in that regard, and one can see how she's reaping the benefits of that in her current series, The Weight. As good as Mendes is now, I sense that her best is ahead of her.

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