Aug 29, 2015

There Are Some Things You Don't Learn in the Big City: This One Summer

In this traditional society, I tend to get asked why I am attracted to fiction with female protagonists, which is weird to me because I think I just get attracted to fiction with good protagonists, and I don't really distinguish by gender. But I am a market researcher, and in those terms, I do admit that compared to other people, my tastes do skew more towards heroines than theirs. And a big part of that is that I love diversity, both in life and in fiction. I am fascinated by people who come from different walks of life and grow up under different circumstances, and to see where we find common ground, where we differ, and where we find common ground among those differences.

So let's talk about poetry for a second. I don't read or listen to poetry. Comics is my medium of choice, and while that does, sometimes, employ some poetry, the written word in stanzas and verses isn't going to hook me. I don't go out of my way for poets, except for one: spoken word poet Sarah Kay. I'm not sure, really, why I love Sarah Kay. I think so much of what she says touches me, either in ways that I relate to (watch her say the number one rule of being cool, and why she doesn't go through life that way) or ways that I don't relate to, and that fascinates me (watch her talk about how she'd raise a daughter). And I can't judge poetry properly, but I know what I like, and I like Sarah Kay's poems.

Sarah Kay has a poem called "Montauk," which is about the summers she spent in Montauk, away from New York City where she lived the rest of the year. It's a poem that talks about growing up in those summers, coming of age just a bit each time.

"Montauk" reminds me of This One Summer, by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki. (Hah! You were wondering what this was going to do with comics!) To be honest, there aren't a lot of slice-of-life stories on my shelf. Although some of my favorite movies and even a few novels are slice-of-life, I haven't really gotten into the genre in comics unless it still has some sort of magical or mathematical element to the whole thing, as with Neil Young's Greendale or Asterios Polyp. Generally speaking, I find the ones that stick to reality mostly to be good but invasive (Blankets), well drawn but really depressing (anything Chris Ware has ever done), well drawn but boring (Love and Rockets comes to mind — I absolutely gave that a fair shot), or just in that more id-driven storytelling camp that just doesn't appeal to me (the works of Harvey Pekar, for example). I always want an element of magic in my fiction.

This One Summer is different. Yes, this story about a girl named Rose, who spends a family summer away from the city with her friend Windy, deals with pretty heavy themes and is quite grounded, but for all of that, there is a quality to it that emphasizes the magic of the everyday. Struggling to adjust to their teenage years, Rose and Windy rent R-rated movies, speculate about the sexual activities of the townies, and both fantasize and look down upon the idea of marriage. And if you're thinking, "Wait, that's exactly the kind of stuff you hate about 'grown-up' comics — that they're really unsubtle about that," you're exactly right. But in This One Summer, that's part of the appeal, because it really is two teenage girls struggling with growing up, and that's part of it. You, as the reader, never once feel like they're adults; there is always the sense that their idea of adulthood is so limited and there's always something bigger. There are different subplots, but they are all seen from Rose's perspective, so we never know more than she does, and for all her cynical teenager talk that makes it sound like she knows everything, in the quiet moments, we realize that she knows she knows nothing. For example, Rose doesn't even realize she's being sexist when she dismisses all the girls in the town as sluts — and is freaked when she's called out on it.

A big reveal at the end just drives that point home. This One Summer shows at once that what people immediately think of as adult things pale in comparison to actual adult things, that the world is bigger than our own, and that, when we stop and look, the world is actually quite beautiful. Everyone experiences different things, and the main character can only see it from her own angle.

Two things about This One Summer amaze me aside from the panel-by-panel storytelling (which is actually quite fantastic, since Jillian Tamaki has an intuitive sense of when to zoom in, pull out, pan, and leave wider gaps between panels). The first is that it rewards recursive reading. In the first several pages, Rose and her family are shown arriving at Awago Beach, passing several sights along the way. On first glance, this looks like a simple establishing scene to set the atmosphere, but as it turns out, just about every element the Tamakis introduce that early on is played upon throughout the book. It's incredibly well planned. All this mood-setting really highlights the strength of a stand-alone project with a plentiful but finite number of pages, since artists can easily take as much time as they need to set the stage.

The other thing is the variety of female body types and body language throughout the comic, something that I find exceedingly rare in this medium (yes, I am including superhero comics and non-superhero comics — both have had the same problems throughout the decades), but am finding more common as time goes by and comics progress. Rose is thin, Windy is chubby, and no two women in the entire story have similar body types, nor do they even really move the same way. It's easy to tell at a glance who's who. Windy, who is chubbier and more awkward than Rose, is more comfortable with her body, using many hand gestures and taking up a lot of space with her limbs, while Rose and her mother tend to  be more conservative with their movements. It's a lesson that lots of comics can stand to learn from.

Ultimately, as skeptical as I was of This One Summer, it was a rewarding read that legitimately made me feel more empathy and compassion for people struggling to find out who they are, and for people going through some traumatic stuff.  It made me consider things that people go through, specifically women, and it actually did color, for a bit there, how I see the world. And ultimately I think that's a mark of a good work of fiction.

There are some things you don't learn in the big city. Sometimes you have to learn about them by reading a comic book.

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