Awkward. By Svetlana Chmakova. Yen Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0316381307. 224 pages, $11.00.
I missed this one when it came out in 2015, and missed its sequel, Brave, when it dropped in spring 2017—so I have some catching up to do.
Awkward, now the first book in the growing Berrybrook Middle School series, is a middle-grade graphic novel about warring school cliques: art nerds versus science nerds. More particularly, it’s about the (of course) awkward relationship between Peppi, an art girl, and Jaime, a science boy, a relationship that promises to bridge the divide between those two competing nerddoms. The book cannily targets its intended age group with comically overwrought depictions of social anxiety, tentative friendships, and rivalries that seem epic to those involved even though they might seem minor to anyone else. It’s an eager, infectious riff on school life manga, from a cartoonist, Svetlana Chmakova, who prior to Awkward had specialized in OEL manga, with a fairly long list of titles from Yen (Nightschool, Witch & Wizard) and TOKYOPOP (Dramacon).
Like Vera Brosgol, Chmakova is a Russian immigré with an animation background, but her career path has been different. She has described herself as a “manga author,” and Awkward takes a very manga-like pleasure in the absurdities of school life. Yet her manga influences now seem to be retreating, or quieting down, in favor of a Raina Telgemeier-like aesthetic of clarity and containment. Granted, shōjo manga still looms large in Chmakova’s style, which favors outsize expressions and exaggerated, super-deformed bursts of feeling—but she damps down the manga influence here by working through a gridlike page-and-panel aesthetic that follows the reigning style of US children’s graphic novels. Bleeds and diagonals are few, progress tends to be more horizontal than vertical, most pages are tidily contained within a white frame, and the effects lettering is fairly subtle and contained (with one terrific exception that you can find for yourself). In other words, Awkward, even as it leans hard on strong feelings and comic timing, dials down the manga elements and the intensity, instead aiming for a studied clarity. We are definitely in Raina territory here (Brosgol’s latest, Be Prepared, also goes there).
Like much school life manga, Awkward stitches together the everyday and the outrageous, with cartoonishly exaggerated teachers, a shadowy, unseen principal who seems to hold the power of life and death, and petty disputes that flare up into high drama. The premise of art versus science, and the inevitable realization that the two can go together (cue the da Vinci), are not very fresh, and in general Awkward makes mountains of molehills, inflating minor screwups into soul-wrenching dilemmas. Further, we learn little about the protagonist Peppi’s home life or tics, apart from her love of drawing and her desire to stay as quiet and invisible at her new school as she possibly can. Scenes outside of school are set up to show Peppi the unexpected depths of her schoolmates; she herself doesn’t seem to have any. Awkward is not a very complex story, and Peppi’s eventual move from diffidence to action is foreordained. The character who exhibits the most depth—a go-getter classmate whose infectious, take-charge enthusiasm hides a troubled home life—gives the story a welcome dose of gravitas, but then disappears altogether. Her fate remains a dangling loose end as Chmakova rushes to the denouement. Awkward, then, is not a story that bears much critical thinking. However, it is delightfully rendered, and its unpredictable mix of comic hyperbole and genuine angst makes me want to read the sequels. Berrybrook Middle has the potential to be a great fictional school and story engine, and Chmakova, working at the crossroads of multiple traditions, has found a distinct style and energy of her own.
Time for me to go read Brave.