I absolutely loathe summer. The mosquitos are out. It’s way too hot and the air is thick with humidity. The sticky days are long and unrelenting; it’s pretty gross. I suffer from bouts of insomnia that always seem to get worse in the summer. I always have trouble sleeping in the heat. The uniqueness of summertime struggles provides a fertile backdrop for Esther Pearl Watson’s Unloveable: Volume 3. Loosely based on the found diary of a teenager, Unloveable explores the singular trials and tribulations of being a suburban teenage girl during the summer of 1989. Initially, I was apprehensive about reviewing a comic that I had not read the previous volumes. I was afraid I would be lost and I wanted to make sure I could give it a fair shake. However, Unloveable is a complete story on its own.
Unloveable’s protagonist, the unflappable Tammy Pierce, is stuck in the purgatory of summer. Tammy just wants to lie out in the sun and maybe, finally get to kiss one of her many crushes. Summers as a teen can be particularly unbearable. Really, it kinda sucks. I remember summers being an incredibly restless and angsty time. School might be out but you are faced with the boredom and isolation of being stuck at home. Alternatively, you are forced to get a summer job or suffer the singular indignity that is summer school.
Unloveable is a memorable and gorgeous book. Every design element reinforces its physicality, inviting you to pick the book up. Roughly the same size as the previous two volumes, the small book is appealingly chunky. The cover is amazing. Bright and eye-catching, it is done in an electric green and accented with glitter. While writing this review I often carried the book around, upon seeing it one friend cooed appreciatively. Another immediately picked it up and started running her fingertips across the textured, glittered surfaces. The cover image depicts Tammy sunburnt with her big, unruly hair accented with exuberant scrunchies. Tammy loves gaudy clothing and wearing too much makeup. With one dress strap falling off a shoulder, she’s an adorable hot mess.
The storytelling in Unloveable is intimate and unique. Watson coauthored Whatcha Mean, What’s A Zine?, a guide to creating zines geared towards younger readers. Unloveable is infused with the same kind of DIY spirit and energetic drawings typically only found in self-published comics. In fact, it’s a testament to the brilliance of Fantagraphics that this comic even exists.
Inside, the drawing is marvelously idiosyncratic and detailed. Each page is one large panel, allowing plenty of space to be utilized. This format really forced me to slow down and appreciate Watson’s quirky drawing style. Watson uses novel, expressive lines to tell her story. Her characters inhabit a world that is active and complete. I found myself flipping back and forth through the comic just to take another look at how Watson handled drawing her mostly minimalistic backgrounds. It’s truly a triumph of economical lines and giving the reader the exact right about of visual information to propel the narrative.
Tammy is a legend in her own mind. I was nothing like Tammy as a teenager. Though it is admittedly a little bit harder to get back to that particular headspace, I know I was much more introverted and brooding. Still, Unloveable resonated with me. Tammy is not content with simply accepting things at face value. She is scrappy and utterly convinced of her own beauty. It was refreshing to spend time with a character so convinced of her own awesomeness. Tammy rarely ever doubts her own talents and believes that she can achieve all of her goals. Her confidence is also the impetus to many antics. For instance, while volunteering at a nursing home, Tammy has her own ideas about how the elderly would like to be entertained. Instead of reading to the residents, Tammy breaks out her jam box and busts a move. Her enthusiastic breakdancing continues over several pages. The elderly are not amused.
Tammy is also shown to be incredibly vulnerable. This vulnerability provides a great contrast to her general bravado. She’s also genuinely excited and a little embarrassed by her own sexuality. This kind of complexity only makes her a more compelling character. One subplot has Tammy come to terms with her crush on her best friend’s boyfriend. Ultimately, I was not terribly interested in any sort of love triangle storyline. Tammy just seems too cool to really get involved with anything like that. I was relived that Watson does not allow the narrative to become consumed with this romantic entanglement.
Unloveable is an amazing read. I found myself rooting for Tammy, wanting her to realize that her best friend is using her and that her brother’s best friend is totally crushing. I wanted to tell her to go for it and take all the chances she possibly can. Unloveable left me simultaneously nostalgic and relieved that I did no longer inhabit the drama of being a teenager. In the end I found myself grateful to have read this brilliant comic and hoping that Tammy’s adventures continue in a fourth volume.