Dragon Hoops. By Gene Luen Yang. Color by Lark Pien. First Second. ISBN 978-1626720794 (hardcover), $24.99. 448 pages. March 2020.
Recently Gene Yang has been out touring in support of his newest graphic novel, the just-released Dragon Hoops. But of course he hasn't been touring in the flesh; the COVID-19 pandemic has had him—like so many of us—holed up at home, trying to find creative new ways to engage with both his family and his public. Happily, he hit upon the idea of a virtual book tour: that is, promoting Dragon Hoops through a series of Instagram comic strips in which he responds to readers’ questions. These quick comics are formulaic, but the formulas are clever and engaging: Yang repeats shots and gags across the series, making it feel much like whistle stops before a loving audience that tends to ask the same few questions again and again. Of course, these comics are self-deprecating—more than anyone else, Yang is the object of his own jokes. He makes an excellent comic strip character.
Humorous self-deprecation is one of Yang’s constants. He used to self-publish under the imprint Humble Comics, and if you’ve seen him speak you know that he excels at genial self-mockery. Yang plays humble the way Liszt played the piano—it’s his instrument. But don’t let him fool you: he is a gutsy and ambitious narrative artist whose work walks a tightrope between charming accessibility and willed difficulty. Yang takes chances. In particular, his solo graphic novels (as opposed to his many collaborative works) are fearsome high-wire performances. Dragon Hoops is no exception.
Yang’s comics tend to be structurally tricky, thematically bold, and psychologically sharp. His breakout book, American Born Chinese (2006), semi-autobiographical yet fantastical at once, interweaves three stories in three different genres, until a startling moment that turns those three tales into one. The novel oscillates between ingratiating humor and terrible pain (in fact, those two tones are co-present throughout). Mixing myth fantasy, earthbound middle-grade school story, and arch sitcom, American Born Chinese is great comics, capitalizing on the form’s stable-unstable, multimodal heterogeneity to tell an immigrants’ son’s story, one of divided identity or fractured self. At bottom, it’s a story about internalized racism and self-hatred. A nervy book, it freely adapts China’s legendary Journey to the West, while at the same time insinuating a Christian allegory and riffing on Transformer/mecha pop culture. Moreover, it dares a form of grotesque satire, in which hateful, grossly racist anti-Chinese stereotypes reflect the protagonist’s self-loathing (a strategy as impious and risky as Art Spiegelman's notorious animal metaphor in Maus). In sum, American Born Chinese revealed Yang’s propensity for large-scale structural conceits that enact his own ambivalence and complex sense of identity. It was, is, daring.
Yang’s follow-up project, Boxers & Saints, goes one better. A two-volume novel about China’s Boxer Rebellion, it’s a magic-realist historical fantasy in which the twin volumes represent, in a kind of tense counterpoint, both Chinese nationalist (Boxers) and Europeanized missionary (Saints) perspectives. Pitting the story of a young man who is an anti-colonial revolutionary against that of a young woman who is a Christian convert, Boxers & Saints balances Yang’s Catholicism against his pained awareness of Western imperialism and racism, while also critiquing strands of misogyny in traditional Chinese culture. The resulting two-headed novel, rather shockingly violent for Yang, represents a dramatic argument: a psychomachia in which different facets of Yang contend with each other, bitterly. Boxers completes Saints, and vice versa, and both volumes sting. This project shows, again, Yang’s penchant for teasing out self-conflict by counterposing different plots (in this case, different books!) and engineering complex structures. Identity in his books is as tricky as the plots: dynamic and never settled, an anxious balancing act. Yang's ingenious plotting, and an overall sense of high personal stakes, of storytelling wrung from pain, transform what could be flatly didactic into harrowing stuff.
Dragon Hoops aims for this quality too, though it lacks the big structural conceits of the three-part American Born Chinese or two-part Boxers & Saints. It differs in another important way too: this time the tale is not historic, mythic, or crypto-autobiographical, but instead a literal memoir, an account of a year in Yang’s life as a teacher at Bishop O’Dowd High, a Catholic school in the Bay Area. Dragon Hoops is the longest overtly autobiographical work Yang has done. Yet it’s really about (huh?) basketball: on one level, Bishop O’Dowd’s varsity men’s basketball team, the Dragons, hungry for a state championship, but more broadly the entire history of the sport and how it intersects with race, class, and even Catholic schooling. In short, Dragon Hoops takes on basketball as a social force. This is something that the book’s version of Gene, archetypally geeky and sports-averse, has to struggle to understand. The story follows Gene from standoffish sideline observer (he is, at first, simply a storyteller looking for a new story) to ardent booster of the school’s basketball squad. At the same time, it charts a major shakeup in Yang’s own life, and offers multiple stories of struggle and vindication if not redemption. Further, it explores ethical issues involved in coaching, mentoring young people, and even Yang’s own storytelling. In fact, Yang worries on the page about what he is doing on the page. Here the book seems boldest--or perhaps most vulnerable?
Dragon Hoops is long and complex (at about a hundred pages longer than Boxers, it is Yang’s heftiest single volume). Somewhere between intimate memoir, journalism, and oral history, it profiles the players on Bishop O’Dowd’s team, observes the complex social dynamics of their lives, and sets us up for, yes, a nail-biting climax on the court, at the longed-for championship game. Simultaneously, though, it recounts the creation and democratization, or broadening, of basketball, in a series of historical vignettes—while also depicting a transformative moment in Gene’s uncertain career in comics. That career comes to a sort of fortunate crisis when Gene, startled and uncertain, is offered a chance to write, of all things, Superman. Yang thus parallels the team’s story with a node of decision in his own life. In this way, the book explains why he is no longer at Bishop O’Dowd, and becomes a bittersweet valedictory to his seventeen-year stretch there (and perhaps a way of prolonging his connection to the school?). There’s a great deal happening in Dragon Hoops, then—the book’s seemingly straightforward structure conceals yet another gutsy high-wire act.
This book is jammed full. Starting from a prologue in which Gene, reticent and awkward, seeks out Dragons coach Lou Richie, the story shuttles between present-day profiles and historical background, while also packing in loads of on-court basketball action. The team’s season, and Gene’s growing relationship with “Coach Lou,” are the spine of the book, but Yang freely intermixes other elements, with special attention to particular Dragons and how their team collectively embodies diversity. Chapters depicting important games alternate with chapters devoted to key players (in this sense, the book’s structure is very deliberate). Yang uses the players’ backstories both to celebrate basketball as an inclusive and egalitarian sport but also to point out various problems, notably racism and sexism, in the history and culture of the game. One chapter is devoted to a pair of siblings, Oderah, star of O’Dowd’s championship women’s basketball team, and her younger brother, Arinze, now part of the men’s varsity squad; the two are constant rivals, yet fiercely loyal to each other. Another chapter profiles Qianjun (“Alex”) Zhao, a Chinese exchange student on the Dragons’ team. Another focuses on Jeevin Sandhu, a Punjabi student of the Sikh faith—and here Yang focuses on the challenges of assimilation, while also providing, in effect, a brief introduction to Sikhism.
There’s more. Dragon Hoops depicts James Naismith, who invented basketball in 1891; Marques Haynes and his fellow Harlem Globetrotters, who helped integrate the game; Senda Berenson, who launched women’s basketball; Yao Ming, the first star of Chinese basketball to thrive in the NBA; and other notables in the game’s history. Yang smartly interweaves present and past: the chapter on Jeevin also recounts the rise of Catholic schooling and the career of early NBA star George Mikan, a Croatian American player from a Catholic seminary; Yang then acknowledges that Jeevin, as a Sikh, is an outlier in Bishop O’Dowd’s Catholic culture (a scene of Jeevin reciting the Mul Mantar, a Sikh prayer, complements other scenes of praying in the book). Similarly, the chapter on Oderah and Arinzes weaves in Berenson’s story and the rise of the women’s game, including a historic dunk by pioneering college player Georgeann Wells. You can feel Yang matching up elements from past and present to build a tight, cohesive book.
Visually, Dragon Hoops is likewise purposeful and designing. Breathless scenes of action on the court, sometimes parsed down to the split second, recall the sort of intense basketball manga popularized by Takehiko Inoue (Slam Dunk, Buzzer Beater, Real). These scenes attain an energy and forcefulness that exceed Yang’s previous work (even the martial violence of Boxers & Saints). There are sequences that fairly set my pulse racing. What makes these explosions of action thrilling is the way the book as a whole carefully measures out its storytelling, and uses the very controlled braiding of repeated imagery to reinforce its themes. Yang recycles and repurposes the same signal images over and over, to point up thematic parallels between past and present, among the different players, and between the Dragons’ quest for the championship and his own concern about going “all in on comics” as a career. Dragon Hoops is a library of key images, reworked and re-inflected (indeed, it could take the place of the vaunted Watchmen when it comes to classroom lessons about braiding!). In fact, it’s a brilliant sustained feat of cartooning for the graphic novel form; the book echoes back and forth, as Yang plays the long game.
There’s a kind of nervousness, though, behind Yang’s cleverness. Dragon Hoops is an anxious, self-conscious work. Like Spiegelman’s Maus—and a great many other graphic memoirs since—it reveals and worries over its own stratagems. The authorial notes in the book’s back matter frankly discuss Yang’s sourcing and his occasional resort to artistic license. Said notes relate to the main story dialectically and at times critically (reminding me of the disarming notes in several books by Chester Brown). In particular, Yang admits that he has cast his wife Theresa as, essentially, his sounding board and proverbial better half: wise and practical, humorously tolerant of his anxieties, and full of advice and encouragement (or reasonable doubts about his judgment, as the occasion demands). Talking to Theresa becomes a means of registering Gene’s doubts about his own project, and the sometimes choppy ethical waters that the project gets him into. Though Theresa makes an impression, she does not really emerge as a full-blown character (and the same could be said of Theresa and Gene’s children). Yang notes that he took “particular liberty” with her dialogue: “I figured I could because, y’know, we’re married.” His notes are full of revealing asides like these, which invite a closer look at Dragon Hoops as a performance and a made thing, not just an artless recording of real-life events.
Yang’s self-reflexive disclosure of his artistic feints happens not only in the back matter but also in the main story. Dig these two successive panels, on either side of a page turn:
In particular, Yang depicts himself worrying over a single compromising plot point: a deeply troubling element of real life that threatens his desired “feel-good” story but that he feels he cannot omit. That ethical sore point is seeded about a third of the way into the book, after which Gene frets and frets over it—until a moment about four-fifths in, when Gene, or rather the book, enacts its moment of decision:
Readers of Maus may be reminded of Art’s insistence that “reality is too complex for comics"—which Yang echoes here, stating that comics are “essentially lies.” (Spiegelman too sometimes casts his wife, Françoise Mouly, as a sounding board whose dialogue makes his work’s ethical complications clearer.) In the case of Dragon Hoops, this sort of self-reflexive gambit becomes a fundamental plot element, in fact a suspense generator, long before Yang reveals precisely why. We spend a good part of the book wondering what he is hiding, and how he will reveal it (of course, this plot tease makes it obvious that at some point he will). This isn’t a terribly original move—graphic memoirs have been depicting the rigors of their own making since at least Justin Green—but here it feels almost like a forced move, as if Yang was compelled to it by unnerving real-world details that he could not wish away. Anxiety over this point fundamentally shapes the book’s narrative structure.
Dragon Hoops, then, perhaps seeks to inoculate itself against criticism. That is, Yang’s self-critical gambits (there are many) may be meant to deflect charges that his expert storytelling massages the truth a bit too much. I’m not sure that such charges would be fair—but I confess I don’t think Dragon Hoops is Yang’s most convincing graphic novel. Whereas American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints continue to hint at mixed feelings even as they aim for conclusiveness and wholeness, this book wants to feel emphatically resolved. Yang’s trademark ambivalence yields to a sort of boosterism. At times, Dragon Hoops seems to apply the “underdog” template of most sports stories rather uncritically; for example, the book registers some complicated thoughts about sports, coaching, and Catholic education that its final pages don’t so much resolve as hush. Me, I would have liked to see more critical engagement of what it means to turn young athletes into media stars. I would have liked to see more of Coach Lou’s self-questioning. Dragon Hoops is smart and honest enough to acknowledge problems in the culture of sports, but still wants us to cheer at the final buzzer. Maybe it’s an ironic tribute to Yang’s storytelling that, in the end, I wasn’t quite there. In any case, the book’s reigning structural parallel—how the courage and tenacity of the Dragons empowers Yang to go “all in” himself, as an artist—feels a bit rigged alongside the terrible dilemmas depicted in his previous novels.
But, man, it's hard to begrudge Yang the effort, because so much good stuff happens along the way. Dragon Hoops captures a culture, community, and season vividly, and is the very definition of what we should want from a major artist: a step in a new direction, and a dare-to-self that plays out in complex ways. No one could accuse Yang of making things easy on himself. And the book has taught me a lot. As my wife Mich and I take our daily break from isolation, walking the quiet neighborhoods around us, waving (distantly) at passers-by, we see a lot of basketball hoops on driveways and in yards. In fact, a couple of days ago, as we walked uphill through another neighborhood, we heard the sounds of shooting hoops before we came upon the sight: a quick dribble, a silence, a thudding backboard, then more of the same. Sure enough: someone was practicing basketball, solo, in a rear driveway, just barely visible above a tall gate. I had this book on my mind, and had to smile.
Guts. By Raina Telegemeier. Scholastic/Graphix. ISBN 978-0545852500 (softcover), $12.99. 224 pages.
Raina Telgemeier is an engine, a star, a phenomenon. All of us who follow the world of graphic novels have heard this. For several years Telgemeier has borne a job description that, until recently, perhaps no one imagined we would ever need: America’s best-selling graphic novelist. Hype surrounds her like a halo (go, Raina!) Her success is proof of the graphic novel’s decisive new mainstreaming, and further proof, if any were needed, of the buying power and cultural clout of tweenage girls. She is, we’re told, “the Judy Blume of graphic novelists,” and her stardom has been a bellwether of the children’s graphic novel movement.
Telgemeier’s publisher, Scholastic, has capitalized on all this with gusto, rolling out the red carpet for each new release and boosting Raina to million-copy print runs. Earlier this year, a spinoff product, Share Your Smile, a kind of “interactive journal,” signaled a new phase in the branding of Raina: an exhortation to her readers to write their own autobiographical stories in the vein of Telgemeier’s breakout books, Smile and Sisters. I honestly don’t know what to think of Share Your Smile, which seems more about design than revealing content: a guided activity book comparable to Wreck This Journal, The Diary of an Awesome Kid, and so many others. I suppose I had wanted to see something more reflective or essayistic, less about prompts and nearly-blank pages for readers to fill in. (It strikes me that young readers may get more from how-to cartooning books like James Sturm et al.’s Adventures in Cartooning or Ivan Brunetti’s Comics: Easy as ABC!)
Telgemeier’s latest, though, Guts, now that’s a real book — and for me, her best.
Guts is a middle-grade girlhood memoir akin to Smile and Sisters, and designed to match (Telgemeier’s autobiographical books and fictional books are distinguished by different design schemes). It’s in familiar Raina territory: a story of social awkwardness and anxiety, family and friendship, and the minute moral decisions and moments of confusion, defensiveness, and selfishness that can make school life so complicated. Predating the events of Smile, it depicts Raina, the author’s childhood self, going through fourth and fifth grade. Though it matches its sibling titles (indeed, Scholastic has just released all three in a boxed set), it stakes out its own thematic turf, revealing Raina’s anxieties and phobias in an emotionally charged way that goes a step further. It’s a brave book, and, I’m tempted to say, one that only a well-established children’s author could get away with.
Guts depicts panic attacks and (as the title hints) upset stomach, cramping, and retching, as well as social and eating-related anxieties. It joins the considerable body of autobiographical comics that deal with anxiety, psychological distress, and neurodivergence. (Such themes are foundational to autographics as a genre, from Justin Green onward.) For a middle-grade graphic novel, Guts is, well, gutsy; it includes many scenes visualizing physical and psychological discomfort, and in some cases sharp pain and outright terror. It also includes quite a few scenes of bathrooming, bodily embarrassment, doctor’s office visits, and therapy sessions. “Treatment” is essential to its story. In short, Guts contributes to the graphic medicine movement. In the process, it yields the most harrowing and inventive pages Telgemeier has yet created. At the same time, Guts is very much a young reader’s book, never forgetting its main audience and taking care to explain and palliate the scary stuff—not with promises of quick cures and happy-ever-afters, but by showing that anxiety and panic are survivable and can be understood and, with practice, coped with and reduced. Young readers who dig Telgemeier’s books are likely to find Guts a warm, awkwardly funny, and ultimately reassuring guide.
I tend to think that Telgemeier’s best books are her memoirs. Her fictional graphic novels to date, Drama and Ghosts, have been well-intentioned liberal fables with under-examined premises (Drama has been faulted for reproducing romantic stereotypes of the antebellum South, and Ghosts for naive cultural appropriation and whitewashing colonial history). Both have tried to do good things: Drama is a queer-positive, gender-defying romance, and Ghosts a story of family affected by illness and disability. But they aren’t tough-minded books, and Telgemeier doesn’t quite skirt the pitfalls built into their premises. In her memoirs, however, Telgemeier has crafted a believably human alter ego, just anxious and at times selfish enough to pose serious ethical dilemmas, and she has a way of disclosing certain hard things that don’t get solved, even as her boisterous cartooning conveys a bright, affirming outlook on life. The balance is exquisite, and Telgemeier usually nails it.
Guts is the Raina book I’ve liked best. I will remember its formal gambits (startling for a middle-grade graphic novel) and its honesty. Telgemeier, at once a first-class storyteller and a commercial powerhouse, has clearly hit her stride. This book take chances, the chances pay off, and I’m impressed by the way she manages to walk the tightrope.
Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Careful Chaos. By Lucy Knisley. First Second. ISBN 978-1626728080 (softcover), $19.99. 256 pages.
Kid Gloves tells of author Lucy Knisley’s pregnancies and miscarriages, and finally the birth of her and her husband’s child. Blending memoir, childbirth education, and self-help, the book also offers, at times, sharp criticism of both sexist birthing institutions and natural childbirth truisms. Between chapters of personal narrative, Knisley inserts brief interchapters devoted to “pregnancy research”—actually, a mix of contextualizing details and Knisley’s pointed editorializing: often humorous, sometimes exasperated. These interchapters are didactic but droll, and not impersonal; they resonate with Knisley’s own story. The larger personal narrative takes us through Knisley’s miscarriages and resulting depression, then on through the conception, bearing, and delivery of her child—itself a traumatic, life-threatening event (due to eclampsia and seizure). A lot of scary stuff is replayed in this story, but also a great deal of joy and good humor. Knisley comes across as a friendly but not uncritical guide to the vagaries of pregnancy, opinionated, blunt, and confidential. She relays her story from a safe retrospective distance: her introduction shows Lucy and the baby, weeks after delivery, doing okay, and the narrative captions reassuringly carry us along. That is, the story is recounted in hindsight, rather than rawly dramatized. All this is delivered (sorry!) via Knisley’s reliably excellent, toothsome cartooning, dynamic yet readable layouts, and beautiful colors—signs of her offhand mastery of the craft. Wow, can she make comics.
I admit I approached Kid Gloves a tad nervously, unsure of whether Knisley’s writing would be equal to her subject. My first experience of her work, her memoir Relish (2013), had frustrated me with what I took to be its unexamined entitlement, skirting of emotional complexity, and preference for glib affirmation over fierce self-examination. Knisley does not do raw confessionalism or self-damning underground memoir. While her work does take on hard things, she tends to adopt a position of earned confidence and matter-of-factness (again, self-help is a useful point of reference). Her rhetorical construction of self is not the fractured self of Green or Kominsky-Crumb, nor the compulsively self-questioning, reflexive self of Spiegelman or Bechdel (though she does indulge here in comically grotesque caricatures of her changing body and its trials). Knisley the narrator seems secure even when Kid Gloves depicts the depths of depression or the harrowing trials of illness and emergency. It is a reassuring sort of memoir that offers a sane perspective-taking rather than an unsettled, open-ended questioning (in this, it reminds me of what Ellen Forney has done in her memoirs of bipolarity).
Indeed, at times Kid Gloves skates over complex things much as Relish did. For example, in a sequence that my wife Michele called to my attention, Knisley recalls the aftereffects of one of her miscarriages, and what she characterizes as her mother’s insensitive response:
You might think that this characterization would lead to a considered treatment of her mother throughout the remainder of the book, one that would balance daughterly love and forgiveness against frustration and critique. But Knisley accepts this tension between mother and daughter as an unresolvable, and moves on, not revisiting these hard feelings but tucking them away. (You won’t find here, for example, the extended, ambivalent treatment of parent-child relationships that you’ll see in Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do.) I worried that this key moment, which comes early in the text, would cancel Knisley’s piercing depictions of depression, that she would paper over complexities in the quest for a feel-good equanimity such as we so often see in popular memoir and self-help books.
Knisley, however, proved me wrong. Her narrative goes on to address challenging issues, including her and her husband’s anxieties, her triggers and preoccupations, the wrenching bodily demands of pregnancy, and her tense relationship with childbirthing dogma. The actual birth of her son, accomplished by cesarean and blurred out by medication, brings an explosive change to Knisley’s pages, suggesting lingering trauma and loss. Further, when her own life hangs in the balance, Knisley switches focalization to her husband, with drastic changes in her technique. There are moments when her always decorous, conspicuously well-designed pages become unsettled and the delivery of her story becomes most piercing. The book’s climax moved me beyond my expectations.
Michele read Kid Gloves before I did, and told me frankly that the book raised up some difficult memories for her. This was perhaps another reason why I approached the book with a bit of dread. It’s true that reading it brought up some of my own memories of how Michele and I wrestled with medicalized childbirth and its outcomes. Frankly, I was surprised by how much Knisley criticizes natural childbirth rhetoric and embraces what she calls “hospital-based interventions” (even as she recounts what were arguably cases of medical malpractice). Kid Gloves, it's fair to say, takes a jaded view of the power struggles between obstetrics and traditional midwifery. These notes brought up memories of our own childbirthing experience; they also got me to question Knisley's wisdom. At times, the old feelings of impatience regarding her writing came back to me. There was a whiff of unexamined entitlement about Knisley's weighing of women’s “choices” in childbirth (“as long as everyone’s healthy”), and behind her settled self-presentation I sense a certain hardheadedness. But, still, Kid Gloves is a forthcoming and bracing story, one that will surely prove inspiring to many readers going through the childbirthing experience or seeking to put it into perspective afterward. By book’s end, I felt grateful for the ride.
In sum, Kid Gloves uses the all-at-onceness and richness of the comics page to tell a story that is at once personal, instructive, and political. I don’t quite love it the way I love comics that tell of childbearing from a rawer, less protected place (check out Lauren Weinstein’s superb Mother’s Walk), and I note that Knisley continues to walk the knife’s edge between personal exploration and tidy, marketable endings. But Kid Gloves marks a step forward for her as a writer, and I recommend it.
No Ivy League. By Hazel Newlevant. Roar/Lion Forge, 2019. ISBN 978-1549303050 (softcover), $14.99. 216 pages.
No Ivy League, a memoir of adolescence, recounts a transformative summer in the life of author Hazel Newlevant. That summer, they (Hazel) took a first tentative step out of the cocoon of their homeschooled upbringing by joining a teenaged work crew clearing ivy from the trees of Portland, Oregon’s Forest Park. That crew consisted of high school students, diverse in class and ethnicity—a sharp contrast to Hazel’s sheltered, all-white life. (Note: I refer to Hazel the character by Newlevant’s preferred gender pronouns they/them/their, though the book’s treatment of that issue is ambiguous: Hazel is addressed by her peers as “girl” or chica, but is seldom if ever referred to by pronoun.)
Essentially, No Ivy League is the story of a challenging summer job. It depicts Hazel as not quite up to the challenge: a well-intentioned yet privileged and obtuse kid, painfully self-conscious, whose homeschooling has left them unprepared for the social and ethical challenges of getting along in a varied group. This can be inferred even from the book’s cover (above), which epitomizes Newlevant’s way of getting inside their teenage self and showing their social awkwardness and anxious aloneness. There are lots of fretful images of Hazel like this within the book.
I’ve been looking forward to No Ivy League since Newlevant previewed the book at the 2018 Comics Studies Society conference (they were a keynote speaker there, in conversation with fellow artist Whit Taylor). It was a pleasure to meet them and hear them reflect on their creative process. Visually, the end result does not disappoint: the book boasts sharp, emotionally readable cartooning and atmospheric settings, built out of layered watercolor washes and selective touches of brush-inking (the book’s back matter demonstrates Newlevant’s process). The drawings are made of light and shade. Newlevant makes many smart aesthetic choices, not least the pages’ rich green palette, which, fittingly, often shades into deep forest hues. The overall look conjures the green spaces of Forest Park. This is a lovely, well-designed book.
No Ivy League’s narrative, though, doesn’t quite convince me. It has a point to make; certain things (telegraphed in the jacket copy and in Newlevant’s own notes) are meant to come through clearly. Hazel is meant to see their own upbringing in a newly critical light, as they realize their white privilege and class privilege. In particular, they are meant to regret reporting a coworker of color for sexual harassment (one humiliating, profane remark), since their words cost that coworker his job. Guilt leads Hazel to examine critically the prevailing whiteness of home-school culture, and to research the history of integration busing in Oregon, which leads to a dismaying realization about their parents’ own motives for home-schooling them. In effect, all this teaches Hazel to recognize the privilege that separates them from their coworkers.
But these revelations have a second-hand quality that doesn’t feel earned. This is not for want of trying on Newlevant’s part; individual scenes are nuanced, and Newlevant does not shy away from problems. But the book’s form, as a literal memoir, does not allow for a complex treatment of the diverse work crew in which Hazel finds themself. The storytelling remains too intimately tied to Hazel’s anxieties and desires, and never builds its other characters beyond hints. Those hints are good—they suggest what Newlevant could do with a freer novelistic development of the book's themes—but everything remains keyed to the growth of Hazel’s consciousness, so that, ironically, the book’s form ends up mirroring the self-absorption that Newlevant so clearly intends to criticize. The story’s resolution, which affirms community across ethnic and class lines, feels like a lunge for closure that isn’t warranted, based on what the story gives. In short, No Ivy League feels a bit signpost-y to me, i.e. forced.
Still, there are terrific things in this book. For one thing, there’s a lot of smart dialogue and physical blocking. Newlevant well captures the awkwardness of Hazel’s social moves, their blundering, unsure way of making connections, and (again) their sense of isolation. For another, Newlevant does intriguing things with design, rhythm, and the braiding of details. A wordless two-page sequence captures Hazel’s alienation from their own once-comfortable surroundings:
Hazel’s animated video extolling the advantages of homeschooling (their submission to a contest among home-school students) comes up twice, and the second time we see Hazel watching it with a more critical eye, their own expressions superimposed over the video’s images:
On the other hand, the book includes some narrative feints that don’t come to much, such as a subplot about Hazel’s relationships with their boyfriend and with an older supervisor (on whom they have a crush). That narrative dogleg doesn’t seem to lead anywhere—though, to be fair, one could argue that that’s the point (perhaps Hazel puts aside romance in favor of a greater self-discovery?). To me, it felt like a dangling, untied thread.
Overall, I was left feeling that Newlevant’s narrative reach had exceeded their grasp. Given a conclusion that feels willed but not organically attained, I came away with, mainly, a nagging desire to learn more about what I can only call the book’s “supporting cast” (an inadvertent testimony, perhaps, to Newlevant’s storytelling potential). No Ivy League, I think, wants a form better-suited to conveying its cocoon-busting message.
That said, the book is visually elegant and transporting. Newlevant is a gifted cartoonist with a keen sense of place and mood. They are also, my criticisms aside, an ambitious writer who merits following. I urge my readers to seek out No Ivy League and give it their own considered reading.
Sigh. About eleven weeks ago, I announced that KinderComics would be taking "a four-week break." That is, back around July 23 I envisioned that KinderComics would take a brief timeout so that I could prep my Fall classes and fix some technical problems, but then come roaring back to life by August 20. My hope, as I said, was "to get KinderComics on a more secure tech footing and then resume blogging on a biweekly basis just in time for the Fall semester." Further, I promised that KinderComics would "delve into teaching in a big way come August 20-27." Out of such promises, embarrassing retractions are made.
August 20 would have been one week before the launch of classes at my school (CSU Northridge). As it happens, we are now in Week Seven of classes. Of particular interest to KinderComics is my Honors seminar, English 392, devoted to "Comics, Childhood, and Children's Comics." That course underwent much revision between the time of my last substantial post about it (gulp, May 31) and the launch of class on August 27. For example, four or five of the books I envisioned teaching in 392 have in fact dropped out of the syllabus, since I had to make more room for big issues and assignments (as a course designer, I'm used to that sort of change). As I've noted before, 392 is a bit of a balancing act: the impetus for the class is the current boom in young readers' graphic novels, but the class also seeks to "address the vexed larger history of children’s comics," including, briefly, "the histories of newspaper strips and comic books vis-à-vis children." As I've said, juggling those various topics is a challenge, both practically and intellectually. And now my students and I are right in the middle of that challenge!
Working with the reality of 392, as opposed to planning it in the abstract, has required me to adjust my sights and hopes, so as to do the best I can by my students. What was a notional blueprint for a course has become, as it always must, an actual class and a kind of living experiment. I have begun to worry that my approach assumes too much prior knowledge, and to remind myself that any comics course at this level needs to lay a foundation, because students very often come into these courses with no prior experience of Comics Studies, and even little experience as comics readers (I am reminded of Gwen Tarbox's wise comments about gearing her comics-teaching toward her students' needs and concerns). In any case, I have certainly been mindful, these past seven weeks, of the serious challenge we have undertaken as a class. Here is the abridged course description for 392 that I gave out on paper back on Day One (the full syllabus being online, in the form of a class website):
And here is the tentative schedule, also given out on Day One (the final schedule being on the class website, and always potentially in flux):
Thus far we've kept to the rough contours of this schedule. On the one hand, we need some flexibility in scheduling; OTOH, the students have volunteered for dates to serve as discussion leaders (or "launchers"), so we do have to hold to the schedule as much as we can. Per the schedule, just yesterday we hosted the first of our four scheduled guest speakers: Dr. Lara Saguisag of the College of Staten Island-CUNY. Dr. Saguisag is an experienced children's author, longtime contributor to the Children's Literature Association, and author of the brand-new study, Incorrigibles and Innocents: Constructing Childhood and Citizenship in Progressive Era Comics (Ruters UP), which I consider a watershed book in both comic strip and childhood studies. I am sure that this is going to be an important and generative work for both children's literature and comics scholars.
Having read both Dr. Saguisag's article on Buster Brown and some of her work on Peanuts this past week, we joined her via Skype for a freewheeling, spontaneous conversation about childhood studies, children's book publishing in the Philippines, early comic strips, and her research methods and process, as well as her passionate childhood reading (and perhaps more ambivalent adult assessment) of Hergé's Tintin and Lewis Carroll's Alice (with a sprinkling of Roald Dahl for good measure). It was a delight to witness Dr. Saguisag thinking aloud, on her feet as it were, about serious issues, including children's reading, its possible influence, the dark side of humor, and the resonance, or one could even say terrible relevance, of her book's findings for America today, an America once again obsessed with self and Other, inclusion and exclusion, and what it means to be a citizen. Speaking personally, I can't thank Lara enough for her forthrightness, openness, and thoughtfulness, and for her generous, accessible way with everyone in our class. It was a great session.
By semester's end, we will have hosted, assuming all goes according to plan, three more speakers, including Skype guests Carol Tilley and Gina Gagliano and in-person visitor Jordan Crane (We Are All Me). To say that I'm looking forward to these sessions would be a huge understatement!
What else have we been up to in 392? Well, besides delving into Peanuts and (via Lara Saguisag's work) early American newspaper strips, we've also discussed: the cultural status of comics in the US, in particular the comic book as defined by the scandals of the mid-20th century (this will lead to Dr. Tilley and other sources in a couple of weeks); the children's graphic novel boom (and the current status of graphic novels in public libraries); the introductions to two landmark scholarly books that came out last year, Picturing Childhood: Youth in Transnational Comics (ed. Heimermann and Tullis) and Graphic Novels for Children and Young Adults (ed. Abate and Tarbox); Joe Sutliff Sanders's "chaperoning theory" regarding the difference between comics and picture books, followed by Spiegelman and García Sánchez's Lost in NYC (2015) vis-à-vis De la Peña and Robinson's Last Stop on Market Street (also 2015); and Karasik and Newgarden's How to Read Nancy (2017), alongside, of course, a fair serving of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy (and Jared Gardner on the history of comic strips). So, it's been a heady brew: history, current events, comics form, constructions of childhood, and more. And we're not even halfway through!
Given all this, and three other courses to teach, in addition to writerly, editorial, and service commitments on multiple fronts, I'm forced to admit that maintaining even a biweekly blog is probably going to be beyond me between now and December. On top of that, the technical problems I alluded to back in July have not changed at all (Weebly continues to be anathema to my university), and I may therefore have to make some tough choices, and soon. But KinderComics is not going away; I hope to be back with reviews before Halloween. I continue to read children's and young adult comics (as well as many other sorts of comics) with the usual trancelike fascination, and look forward to sharing my thoughts here -- and, I hope, to hearing from my readers!
PS. They are not "children's" texts per se, not in the usual, expected sense anyway, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point my readers to two extraordinary works in comics that I've read this past week, one a memoir of childhood to adulthood, the other a story about childbearing and birthing:
L. Nichols's booklength graphic memoir, Flocks, tells a story of growing up queer, and wracked with guilt, in a fundamentalist community. It's not a screed; it's not an act of revenge. Rather, it's an act of love, through and through, one that transmutes pain into courage and understanding. An achingly personal testimony to the work of transitioning and self-fashioning, it finds its own visual language, its own distinctive vocabulary of braided metaphors, to tell a story of self-in-community, of what it means to find yourself within (and against) your "flocks." Brave, tender, and astonishing. Bless publisher Secret Acres for bringing us the completed version of this long-awaited project.
Just as astonishing, though wholly different, is Lauren Weinstein's graphic memoir of her second childbearing and birthing experience, "Mother's Walk," which makes up the latest issue (No. 17) of Youth in Decline's outstanding quarterly anthology, Frontier. "Mother's Walk" is an explicit and revealing remembrance of childbearing and delivery, with all its rigors, emotional, psychological, and of course physical. I have been anxious to see a graphic memoir like this for some time, one that depicts birth and mothering in raw but loving detail. This is a startling, eloquent, and, as always with Weinstein, unpretentious and gutsy piece of work, one that (she says) anticipates a longer book about childbearing and child-rearing. I can't wait.
I recommend these two titles as emphatically as I can recommend any art.
PPS. It’s back in print: Joe Lambert’s Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller. Ohmigosh, yes.
Be Prepared. By Vera Brosgol. Color by Alec Longstreth. First Second Books, April 2018. 256 pages. Hardcover, ISBN 978-1626724440, $22.99. Softcover, ISBN 978-1626724457, $12.99. Book design by Danielle Ceccolini and Rob Steen.
About seven years ago, animator and storyboard artist Vera Brosgol entered the world of graphic novels with a walloping big success: Anya's Ghost, a supernatural fantasy rooted in the experience of being a Russian immigrant girl struggling to fit into American life. Brosgol knew this struggle firsthand, having moved from Russia to the US at age five. Anya's Ghost changed Brosgol's life: rapturously reviewed, the book went on to win Eisner, Harvey, and Cybil Awards. Its theme of trying to disavow one's cultural roots resonated with Gene Luen Yang's epochal American Born Chinese, which had been published some five years earlier (both were published by First Second). The two books drew upon popular genres—myth fantasy, superheroes, ghost stories—to fashion nervy fables of complex and ambivalent identity. In that sense, Anya's Ghost appears to have struck a nerve.
Now Brosgol, having also authored a Caldecott Honored picture book (2016's Leave Me Alone!), has just released her second graphic novel: the autobiographical Be Prepared, in which a nine-year-old Vera, again a self-conscious Russian immigré, goes to summer camp. Be Prepared is in the same vein of comic memoir as Raina Telgemeier's hugely popular Smile (2010) and Sisters (2014), and indeed the book is being promoted in that light (and has been blurbed by Telgemeier herself). Thematically, however, it pairs with Anya's Ghost, as it mines Brosgol's experience as an immigrant to tell another story of the struggle for identity. This time, though, the story happens in the company of many other Russian kids, in the context of a Russian immersion camp with Orthodox roots. From this intriguingly specific setting, Be Prepared builds a book that turns out to be, tonally, quite different from Anya's Ghost, yet is just as wonderful.
Be Prepared begins with, once again, the discomfort, or even humiliation, of being a markedly Russian girl in a suburban American world dominated by unmarked middle-class Whiteness. Yet, whereas Anya's Ghost centers on a somewhat sullen and alienated adolescent, and thus tacks in the direction of Young Adult fiction, Be Prepared's Vera is naive, hopeful, and intimidated by teens. Yet she is worldly-wise enough to know that she sticks out like a sore thumb, that she is too ethnic, "too different," to fit easily into her town and school in Upstate New York. Indeed Vera is painfully aware of being "too poor" and "too Russian" to blend in with her schoolmates.
However, whereas Brosgol's Anya seemed determined to shed her Russianness, Vera thrills to the prospect of attending an all-Russian camp in the New England woods. Most of her schoolmates go away to camp every summer, leaving Vera adrift and bored, but when she learns of a camp where "everyone would be Russian like me," she dares to hope that it will ease the pain of being different. "I had to go," she says. "I had to go." Vera and her little brother Phil do go, and here is where Be Prepared takes off, as it conjures the distinctive setting of a Russian scouting camp, dotted with Russian signage and Orthodox icons. The setting appears to be (guesswork here) based on a real-life camp run by the Organization of Russian Young Pathfinders (Организация Российских Юных Разведчиков, or ORYuR) or some similar Russian Scouting in Exile group. It's all about being Russian, all the time. Camp songs are sung in Russian; Russian speech (a constant) is represented by English within brackets; and each week the boys and girls compete in a capture-the-flag contest called napadenya (attack). The problem is, camp sucks. Vera's hopes of fitting in are dashed: she is placed with older girls who patronize her, her Russian is too tentative, and roughing it freaks her out. Too late: she is committed, and has to stay. Thence comes much of the book's poignancy and humor.
I appreciate the frankness, and sometimes rawness, of Brosgol's humor. As she did in Anya's Ghost, here again she tests what a young reader's book can get away with. The young campers of Be Prepared are emphatically people with bodies, and much of the book's comedy stems from putting those bodies under duress, as happens when you go camping. Bites, stings, toileting, and adolescent growing pains are all played for laughs, and many of the gags involve visits to the dreaded latrine. There's some pain behind the laughs. Brosgol's humor has a salty matter-of-factness that will likely ring true for just about anyone who's ever been to summer camp, as in this sequence where Vera pays her brother a rare visit:
Or this mortifying moment between Vera and her two tent-mates:
There is more to Be Prepared than these moments of rough humor and embarrassment. There's testing, growth, and self-recognition. There's struggle and loneliness, but ultimately affirmation (though thankfully no platitudes). And, man oh man, is there great cartooning.
Be Prepared is a delight because Brosgol is an ace artist with a gift for designing characters, pacing stories, and building pages. The characters, as one might expect of a skilled animator, are clearly tagged, i.e. graphically distinct. Young Vera herself, moonfaced, with coke-bottle glasses and big, dark dots for eyes, is unmistakable: a live antenna of a character, veering from joy to misery, anticipation to disappointment. Brosgol cartoons her (that is to say herself) with comic brio, ruthless insight, and, yes, empathy. Other characters are vivid types, from Vera's teenage tent-mates, both named Sasha, to the cocky alpha male they compete over, to Vera's camp counselor, at first harried and remote, later sympathetic. Brosgol steers these characters and more through shifting moods, reversals, sometimes betrayals, and oh so many moments of cringing social awkwardness.
Further, Brosgol's way with a page, her rhythmic sense of how to make each page build to a payoff, gag, shock, or suspenseful breath, is exhilarating. Her dynamically gridded pages, avoiding tedium but seldom grandstanding, serve the elastic rhythms of the storytelling, and wow does the story move. Though her methods are entirely traditional and convention-bound, Brosgol's sheer fluency is something to behold. Be Prepared is visually masterful, from exacting body language, to precisely observed physical business (camping, hiking, sneaking around), to the rare moments of, whew, calm. Much credit must go to the gorgeously worked surfaces of the pages, completed by the sumptuous coloring of Alec Longstreth, who works wonders with a riotous mix of greens (my scans, here, are too dull to do his work justice). For a strictly "two-color" book, green and black, Be Prepared is replete and ravishing, an opulent outlay of textures.
Be Prepared is beautiful, gutsy, and funny. Granted, it does not have the Gothic horror of Anya's Ghost, and does not resonate quite so unnervingly. Rather, it's a breeze of a book, a charming, vivid comedy. Yet a closer look reveals moments of trouble and complexity that, as usual for Brosgol, are not tidily resolved but instead allowed to hang, unfinished and provoking. There are still doses of painful honesty behind the bright, emphatic delivery—and the ending somewhat short-circuits the expected lessons of growth and acceptance, to my delight.
If Be Prepared isn't nominated for several awards next year, I'll eat my hat. Need I say that it comes highly recommended?
Spinning. By Tillie Walden. First Second, 2017. ISBN 978-1626729407. $17.99, 400 pages. Nominated for a 2018 Excellence in Graphic Literature Award.
The feeling of waiting curbside for a ride in the predawn cold, watching headlights sweep through the darkness.
Of peering out windows on sleepy car rides. Of early-morning arrival at the ice rink.
Of locker rooms, benches, and earbuds, of lacing up your ice skates, everyone in their own little orbit, quietly, tensely readying themselves.
Of being the new girl, of being sized up to see if you are “a threat.”
Of skating across the ice, jumping and falling, your eyeglasses flinging off and away.
The feeling of a teacher’s hands on your shoulders, helping you on with your jacket, and the inward recognition that you are gay.
Of sidelong glances in a classroom, “dizzy” with longing.
Of walking in a crowd of girls, talking about Twilight (Edward or Jacob?), while hiding who you are.
Of playing “never have I ever” with the girls while hiding who you are.
Of trying to recreate, as a skater, with your body, the “tiny graphs and charts,” the “intricate patterns and minute details,” of an instruction book.
Of desperately holding hands during a synchro skating routine. Even as the speed is “ripping them apart.” Holding on for dear life.
Of friendship as a lifeline. As rivalry and sympathy intermingled.
The feeling of being judged, as your teammate speeds up to walk a few paces ahead of you.
Of winning and losing, of exulting in first place and weeping when you lose. Of knowing that you cannot always be the one that wins. The tears of your competitors, and your own.
The dread of the school bully, rendered faceless in memory but still so powerfully there.
Your hands nervously playing in your lap, or gripping your knees. Your teacher questioning you.
The feeling of falling asleep next to your brother by the light of a laptop screen.
Of crying from the makeup in your eyes. Of pulling a blanket up over your head.
The sight of the girl you like stretching, and quietly smiling at you.
The feeling of being alone with her. Of love, bounded by fear.
Of kissing: I didn’t know it would feel like that.
Of capering in a hotel room, alone, free from anyone’s judgment.
Gazing into your reflection in the surface of a vending machine.
The felt “eternity” of a three-minute skating routine.
Feet in the air, in mid-jump.
Stares and glances. Stares and glances. Girlhood as competitive arena.
The feeling of being tested, and failing.
Of being alone in a closed room with a tutor who treats you as a thing. The memory of his hand.
The feeling of coming out, in a broad, silent room crossed by a slanting beam of sunlight, your mother huddled, tense.
Of coming out to your music teacher, in a loving embrace.
The sensation of drawing. Of time collapsed into drawing.
Of a skate remembered as a nervous, tight grid of panels. Of moves and thoughts flickering. Of falling. Oh my god / my coach is looking at me / the audience shit / the judges
The sight of oncoming headlights like round staring eyes.
The memory of his hand.
Of quitting skating. Walking away.
Driving away, crying.
Of returning to the rink, once more, just to prove that you can leave. (There’s no way I could forget.)
For all these experiences, and many more--so finely observed, so precisely caught, in a style at once tense and graceful, minimal yet conveying every telling detail, rigorous and yet so light and free—for all this, Tillie Walden’s memoir Spinning is an unforgettable comic, the kind that gets inside your mind and heart. I cannot recommend it highly enough.