Youth has always been a cultural target, but countless think pieces and breathless cries of what millennials have “killed” cast a new shadow on what expectations are heaped on the generation that’s inheriting a slew of problems. Trust Ales Kot to thrust this perspective to the forefront of a comic, with a double-sized issue to launch Generation Gone #1 (Image Comics). This isn’t the first story to give a group of fictional, disaffected young people superpowers and release them into the world, but Kot makes a statement that is both broad and very specific with his version.
There’s more than a passing resemblance to Akira in both tone and content. Nick and Baldwin are isolated from their parents and largely left to their own devices. Employees of the DARPA project that they hack with their friend Elena could have been lifted whole cloth from Katsuhiro Otomo’s masterpiece. But more than that, Generation Gone is rooted in a particular time and place the same way Akira is, confronting fears of a generation growing up without the same moral compass and economic opportunities of their predecessors. Just as with Akira, there are panels that feel heavy-handed, explicit in spelling out exactly what Kot and his collaborator, André Lima Araújo, want the reader to understand.
But even the preachier panels land good hits because they’re true. The characters talk about paying off debts both individual and social, trying to change the world with money they’re going to steal from a major bank. That’s an optimism that’s rooted in having nothing left to lose and no other options, but feeling like an attempt has to be made anyway. Nick is an asshole in a specific way, dating Elena only because it’s convenient and strokes his ego. Elena, trapped between two jobs and with a seriously ill mother, stays with him to have something stable and normal. Baldwin, a young black man, is fixated on safety and survival. These are real problems of real people.
Araújo’s art and Chris O’Halloran’s colors are a perfect fit for this book. A more stylized or kinetic look would rob the pages of the intimacy they need, with expressive faces and detailed settings that give the characters a sense of reality and weight. Even the antagonists are given agency and depth enough to be sympathetic. Not a single one feels flat, for all that they’re rooted in tropes; they could very easily be stale in the hands of another team. The real draw of Generation Gone is that sense of reality. Kot has in the past confronted a slew of social and cultural flaws that are baked into what we do, and he’s done it with a brutal honesty that many others have shied away from. Where other comics writers have reduced young people to social justice warriors or entitled snowflakes, Generation Gone is a simple question with a complicated answer: What happens if you give angry, hungry millennials superpowers depends entirely on what they want, and what’s been taken away from them.
Fairy tales help children understand big ideas and emotions in a simplified fantasy context: Cinderella explores alienation from family members; Little Red Riding Hood is about the dangers of trusting strangers; Pinocchio looks at the relationship between honesty and humanity. J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is a celebration of the joys of childhood, speaking to the desire of never growing old while telling people to cherish their youth, but Melissa Jane Osborne and Veronica Fish’s new graphic novel, The Wendy Project (Super Genius), offers a different take on the story.
Wendy is a modern teenager racked with guilt and despair after her youngest brother dies in a car accident when she’s behind the wheel. She’s convinced that Michael has flown away to a magical world where he’s waiting to reunite with his sister, but her parents and therapist can see that she’s struggling to process her grief. She’s distant and self-destructive to the point where she’s suicidal, and she’s given a journal so that she can address her feelings rather than fleeing from them. The Wendy Project is that journal, and Dawn Guzzo’s production design reflects that with its smaller dimensions and textured cover stock.
Osborne is a playwright and actress making her comic book debut with The Wendy Project, and it’s easy to imagine this story starting off as a stage play with its focus on a family in crisis and its bursts of theatrical spectacle. Osborne makes a wise decision in bringing this idea to comics, and the form becomes an integral part of the storytelling. The concept would work even better if Peter Pan didn’t exist in the world of The Wendy Project. While the references to the original story don’t occur too often, they don’t need to be there at all. The quotes from Barrie illuminate the themes of the graphic novel, but they create some confusion regarding the fantasy world Wendy has imagined. Wendy being inspired by Peter Pan is different than having her conjure the world of Barrie’s story, which gives the original tale a more primal, mythical quality. This isn’t a big enough problem to diminish the emotional impact of Wendy’s situation, and Osborne fully realizes the depth of Wendy’s grief.
Osborne also has an exceptional collaborator in Fish, who is responsible for the art, colors, and letters. The majority of the book is in black-and-white with pops of watercolor for when fantasy intersects with reality, and the looseness of Fish’s work reinforces the main character’s youth and emotional instability. Wendy is a preternaturally skilled cartoonist with a deep understanding of the form, and it requires some suspension of disbelief to accept that she would be able to create a comic this beautiful on her first try. That said, The Wendy Project needs visuals that can convey turbulent teenage emotions while juggling reality and fantasy, and Fish rises to that challenge. Osborne and Fish deliver a heartrending YA drama with this graphic novel, showcasing how the building blocks of a fairy tale can be reassembled into something new and enlightening.
Why Did The Immigrants Come? offers a striking, flawed story of immigration in the tradition of Art Spiegelman
Serialized between 1980 and 1991, Art Spiegelman’s Maus tells the story of the author’s father, how he survived the Holocaust, and the relationship between the father and son. Spiegelman uniquely tells these stories while drawing all the characters as animals. By replicating this conceit of mixing the dramatic with the anthropomorphic, Mike Dawson pays homage to Maus in his latest, Why Did The Immigrants Come? (The Nib).
In the comic, Dawson attempts to answer the title question, linking the struggle of European immigrants in the early 20th century to the contemporary struggle of Latin American immigrants. He represents the immigrants as mice, with “apologies to Art Spiegelman and Don Bluth” written on the online cover. (Bluth directed the mouse-centric An American Tail.) Illustrated in stark contrasts of black and white, the comic features some of Dawson’s most striking drawing. It’s energetic, immediate, and expressive, simple but direct. And yet, it is these very same illustrations—seductive and evocative—that betray the rhetorical politics that guide the comic.
Describing the journey of immigrants as stemming from harsh conditions—“They were fleeing instability and state sponsored violence”—and the struggles once they arrived as difficult—“The journey was long and treacherous”; “They faced many challenges”—Dawson’s text orients itself toward inclusion and empathy. But his visual supplements challenge and contradict this idea, and the strip’s politics are rendered incoherent at best. As Spiegelman sought to do with a pre-Maus comic, Dawson appropriates the “cat-mouse metaphor of oppression,” but he applies it broadly in Immigrants to any oppressor-oppressed relationships.
This inchoate application creates a divide between the rhetorical and visual politics of the strip, as it physically distinguishes the immigrants from the bourgeoisie of their native country and between immigrants and “Americans.” This becomes a problem as the strip tracks the way immigrants’ descendants enter American society and culture, continuing to render them as mice—visually distinguishing them from their fellow Americans, marking them as distinctly other—though Dawson has demonstrated that they could have become cats had they stayed in their home countries. They are capable of being incorporated into a hegemonic group—they just aren’t. The gestures toward inclusion are thwarted by the strip’s own inability to visualize that inclusion. Even this, however, is problematized by the strip’s final panel, which depicts cat-mice hybrids condemning contemporary immigration. Dawson marks the descendants of immigrants as a hybridized people, though still markedly other. Immigrants’ children, then, can finally be (partially) incorporated into the American body. But only conspicuously—never fully, and only by hating the right people.
That’s not to say that Why Did The Immigrants Come? is some crypto-fascist screed. It’s a failure to thoughtfully develop its visual politics. The clash between the rhetorical and the visual results in an incoherent message.