Friends With BoysA comic review article by: Danny Djeljosevic
You can read the first 20 pages of Friends With Boys at friendswithboys.com
We could always use more good young adult stories. It's easy as a regular adult to write the genre off (thanks Stephenie Meyer), but for the kids who are actually willing to read, YA novels are likely their first encounters with sophisticated storytelling. It's always best to hook 'em young with stories that cater to their sensibilities and their experience. We could always use more YA fiction in comics, too, to nab the kids who aren't just reading Bloodcraw or Shitbank until they start noticing girls or are only in it for the dumb video game tie-ins.
Faith Erin Hicks gets it. Friends With Boys, her newest graphic novel, is the perfect book for the alienated young adult, and potential future comic reader.
I'm no expert on YA fiction (I leave that to the professionals), but logically a good young adult book should present readers with protagonists not unlike themselves who are going through similar experiences of growing up, where "growing up" can be a one-to-one comparison like entering a new school or a metaphor like entering a deadly competition where you have to murder other kids. Basically, you gotta be real with the readers, and not talk down to them. People hate that, and kids can tell.
Friends With Boys smartly avoids that pitfall -- our heroine is Maggie, who was previously homeschooled girl and must now finally start her public school career. Which means taking the plunge directly into high school, as her three older brothers did before her. It's overall a weird time for Maggie -- her mom/teacher recently took off, her brothers have their own concerns at school and her previously hippie-haired dad is getting a haircut to look more "respectable" as chief of police.
So, yeah, everything is changing, as things often do for a kid at that age, and Hicks makes that thematically clear through the entirety of the book. As Maggie enters high school, there's not only a steep learning curve -- which hilariously leads Maggie to map out the entire school ("PEOPLE SLEEP HERE," "MAKE OUT STAIRWELL AVOID!!") like it were a newly discovered land or a Tolkien fantasy world -- but there's new things to learn about her own brothers, dimensions to them she'd never see at home.
And so Maggie befriends Lucy, a bubbly girl with a mohawk who's always seen with her older brother Alistair, who also has a mohawk, but this one's moody and has a backstory. Beyond fulfilling the requisite "these are your new friends at this new school" roles, they give Lucy a front-row seat to just what high school drama looks like, as one of Maggie's brother has beef with Alistair, who in turn has mysterious tension with the head of the volleyball team.
There's also an element of the supernatural to the book, as Maggie is frequently visited by a ghostly woman in a big flowing dress. It's an obvious metaphor for her parental issues, especially once it figures into some mild teenage criminal activity into in the latter half of the book, but I don't mean that in a disparaging way. Hicks wisely doesn't spell it out -- it's pretty clear to an adult, but a younger reader might get a kick out of figuring it out.
Faith Erin Hicks has pretty much always been a solid artist (as you can see from the evolution in her webcomics), but Friends With Boys finds Hicks delivering her most assured work yet, in her style that hits those Philip Bond/Becky Cloonan/Vasilis Lolos cartooning notes but is far more subdued and grounded than those points of comparison. Which isn't to say the book is drab or boring -- she actually shows a lot of range in Friends With Boys, offering some hilariously cartoonish twin brother fights, serious high school jock violence, quiet sadness and even a period piece flashback. Her sound effects are often dynamic and energetic, too -- in line with some of the manga-style creators you see from Oni Press.
Speaking of which, there's a similarly manga-esque briskness to Friends With Boys, and not just because of the black and white pages or the art style. The book has the cinematic quick-read pacing of the Japanese form while delivering a completely satisfying story within a couple hundred pages. Layouts are varied depending on what Hicks wants to pull off -- full-page establishing shots, multi-panel dialogue scenes, moody two-panel pages -- all working together towards one cohesive piece. She's got an amazing handle on panel to panel storytelling.
Which is another reason why I think Friends With Boys makes for great YA comics. It's an immediately identifiable tale about the early stages of growing up, but it's also a perfect example of great storytelling through sequential art. If Friends With Boys gets into the right hands, it could seriously engender a few more lovers of the medium.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine (drawn by Eric Zawadzski) will debut in Spring 2012.