Four books this week, all of which I liked to varying degrees. None I have very deep feelings about. So I’ll run through all four real quick because I think they’re worth checking out, and anyway they kind of remind me of each other.
The Girl Who Owned a City is a graphic adaptation of the classic YA novel from the 1970s by O.T. Nelson, adapted here by Dan Jolley, Joelle Jones, and Jenn Manley Lee. It’s set in a near-future apocalypse following a worldwide pandemic that killed everyone over age 12. The kids left behind try to organize themselves to survive, and predictably they do a pretty bad job of it.
Our hero is a girl of around 11 who bands together all of the kids in her neighborhood to create a self-sufficient, defensible community in an abandoned school. Jones and Lee’s art is excellent and the story moves along snappily enough, but honestly a lot of the amusement comes from the fact that this is supposed to be Atlas Shrugged for kids, and therefore the heroine can’t just run her little community, she has to own it, and make moving speeches about moochers coming to steal what she built. There’s weird comedy in the fact that O.T. Nelson made a junior Jane Galt who’s going to run straight into a virus in about a year and die, and that doesn’t seem to bother him.
In fact, if everyone dies before they reach childbearing age, our junior Jane Galt owns the last city that will ever exist, since humanity will be extinct within a decade. Top that, Jamie Dimon.
Breathers, self-published by Justin Madson, takes place in a world living under the shadow of a pandemic considerably further along. Everyone knows that the air is poison, will kill you within minutes if you breathe it, so everyone has to wear a gas mask when he or she goes outside. Within that world Madson tells what the jacket copy calls “Short Cuts-style intersecting stories.”
I liked Breathers a lot—the most out of these four books—and there were moments of real intrigue as the various plot threads eventually came together. Only two things held it back from being truly great: 1) Madson’s drawing style is ethereal, stylized black and white that doesn’t convey facial expressions or body language well, especially with masks often covering most of his characters’ faces. The characters all look similar, which makes reading harder than it should be.
2) I would have liked his sci-fi world to have clearer real-world parallels. I thought Madson was going there with his description of a society ruled by fear of an invisible threat no individual can dare to confirm for himself. And he does begin to push in that direction with the Breathe Free movement, a forbidden ideology that claims the virus is a hoax. But I didn’t feel like he really paid that idea off as well as he might have. This might be a bit of a SPOILER, but the final message ends up being something like, “Trust scientists and the government,” which would be a sentiment I could actually get behind and a counterintuitive way to go. Unfortunately, the scientists in question were also conducting highly unethical experiments on children, which muddles the thematic message.
In Deadenders the end of the world came not through a virus but through an unexplained Cataclysm, almost as if Ed Brubaker didn’t care how the world ended, he just wanted to get it over with so he could play in the rubble. It’s funny, I thought that Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips had come up with something totally fresh last year with their noir reimagining of Archie comics The Last of the Innocent. I didn’t realize that Ed Brubaker already did a post-apocalyptic Archie ten years ago. It’s a fun shaggy dog story, but I imagine if it were launched now they’d do it as a limited-run series and have much tighter plotting.
Picket Line concerns another kind of crisis: the destruction of a beloved ancient forest by a rapacious developer. Not an apocalypse, quite, but to the insular community near it, it does feel like the end of the world, and for much of the book volcanic annihilation also threatens. And it’s also self-published book by author Breena Wiederhoeft.
The story is told through the eyes of a young woman who drifts into town trying to find herself and gets hired by a landscaping company. But its central and most interesting character is her boss, Rex. He takes a contract with the developer to maintain the grounds of a hunting lodge in the forest, but he does so hoping to find a way to convince the man to change his plans. His wife cheats on him with the developer and meanwhile he’s trying to broker a reconciliation between his daughter and her estranged husband, both of whom work for his business.
The trouble is, I’m fairly sure Wiederhoeft doesn’t quite realize that Rex is her central character, the one with the most interesting conflict to explore. We drift around the action with our point-of-view character, whose own motivations are comparatively very weak.
Unsurprisingly, that character’s biography closely mirrors Wiederhoeft’s, and I wonder whether she fell into a trap I have fallen into too often myself: writing a character based on me and then assuming his motivations would be obvious to the reader because they were obvious to me. I knew why the character was acting that way.
Anyway, just as an interesting contrast, Wiederhoeft’s art is in many ways far cruder than Madson’s, generally close to the web comics she usually draws. But she handles those crude figures much more adroitly. Their simple faces are alive with expression, and she tags each character with recognizable features (sometimes something as simple as a hat) so that the reader knows who’s who before having to think about it.
PDF preview here.