Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.
This week, it is Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me. Written by Mariko Tamaki (X-23, This One Summer) with art by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (If Only Once, If Only For A Little While, What Is Left), this graphic novel is the latest remarkable YA release from First Second spotlighting queer relationships. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
High school student Freddy is a sexually active lesbian who has no hang-ups about her sexual orientation. She’s not worried about coming out and surrounds herself with other proud queer teens. She lives a charmed life with one big exception: She’s trapped in a toxic romance. The tortured lead of a new First Second graphic novel, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, Freddy bypasses a lot of the usual challenges for queer leads in YA stories. Those early moments in a teenager’s sexual awakening are important, but they are just the start of a journey that gets more complicated as romantic relationships develop. Writer Mariko Tamaki and artist Rosemary Valero O’Connell are more interested in what happens later, examining adolescent passion and alienation through Freddy’s unstable partnership with the titular heartbreaker.
The cover of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me captures the book’s core conflict in one alluring image. Laura blocks Freddy from the reader’s view, and Laura’s hands are delicately wrapped around Laura’s neck, but this isn’t a moment of tenderness. It’s a moment of detached evaluation. What we see of Freddy’s face is one eye looking at Laura, depicting how Freddy cuts herself off from the world around her when she fixates on her girlfriend. The physical connection is part of what pulls Freddy away from her friends, but she also gets trapped in her anxieties about their relationship, focusing all her attention inward and ignoring others when they need her.
Mariko Tamaki’s collaborations with her cartoonist cousin, Jillian Tamaki—Skim and This One Summer—are YA comic book classics, offering insightful, sensitive depictions of adolescent joys and challenges. It’s been four years since This One Summer became the first graphic novel to receive the prestigious Caldecott Honor, and while Jillian has been drawing short comics, children’s books, and editorial illustrations since then, Mariko has done a lot of licensed work for DC (Supergirl: Being Super), Marvel (Hulk, X-23), and Dark Horse (Tomb Raider). Mariko gains a new collaborator in Rosemary Valero-O’Connell for her return to creator-owned graphic novels, but the spirit of Jillian’s artwork can still be felt in the care and specificity of Valero-O’Connell’s imagery.
Valero-O’Connell gained significant industry attention when her comic, What Is Left, was nominated for Best Coloring and Best Single Issue/One-Shot at last year’s Eisner Awards. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me doesn’t show the full breadth of her abilities, with its single, pale pink color, but it does highlight how well she can use it to alter atmosphere, add dimension to her linework, and punctuate emotional moments. The visual storytelling is precise and thoughtful, and it’s evident that the artist has spent a lot of time designing spaces that feel lived in and characters who immediately exhibit specific personalities. Lush arrangements of greenery are a key visual motif, adding an element of natural beauty to the panels while evoking different emotional responses.
There’s a very subtle but powerful panel transition early on that brilliantly uses panel composition, borders, and gutters to emphasize a pivotal moment in Freddy and Laura’s relationship. As Freddy frantically searches for Laura during a school dance, she opens a door to find her girlfriend making out with someone else. The panel border disappears as Freddy makes her way through the door, turning the gutter into the door frame so it looks like Freddy is melting into the page. The following panel functions as an exclamation point, zooming in on Freddy’s eye as she discovers the infidelity and is thrown into a state of heartbroken shock. These small visual touches make this moment stand out, establishing doorways as an essential object in their relationship. And surely enough, a door plays a major part in the climax of Freddy and Laura’s arc.
Tamaki excels when she’s writing stories about young women discovering their strength in times of crisis, and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me falls right in her creative sweet spot. The story is focused on Freddy’s internal struggle, but subplots involving Freddy’s friends expand the scope of the story to address other issues faced by queer teens and sexually active young women. These subplots develop on the fringes of the narrative because Freddy isn’t paying attention to her friends’ problems, which prevents them from coming across as underdeveloped.
Laura keeps Freddy from being involved in the lives of the people she deeply cares about, and a major part of Freddy’s journey is realizing that she’s ignoring the people who need her so she can obsess over someone who treats her like garbage. Freddy’s letters to an online advice column function as narration, breaking down her romantic troubles for Anna Vice and keeping her posted on new developments as she waits for a response. These letters are akin to pleading diary entries, providing an opportunity for a narrative shift toward the end when Anna Vice writes back. The guidance she offers to Freddy is genuinely valuable advice for young readers to hear, teaching the importance of not compromising your own happiness in the name of love.
One puzzling element of Laura Dean is the hallucinated dialogue that Freddy hears, usually from her mutated stuffed animals but sometimes from environmental elements like a pin-up lady printed on a shower curtain. These lines usually come when she’s fixated on Laura and feeling sorry for herself, but that’s not always the case. The final moment adds another twist to this idea when a different character hears one of these imagined voices. It’s a way to firmly close a gap that develops between this character and Freddy, but the dialogue conceit and its purpose in the emotional storytelling was confusing. The lines themselves are external verbalizations of the characters’ feelings, but they aren’t necessary when the artwork is so good at depicting these inner states.
In addition to Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, First Second has published numerous YA graphic novels centered on queer romance: Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau’s Bloom, Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw’s Kiss Number 8, and Tillie Walden’s On A Sunbeam, Ngozi Ukazu’s Check, Please! Within these books, there are varying degrees of complexity and reading difficulty: Check, Please!, Bloom, and Kiss Number 8 veer on the simpler side, with minimal abstraction and straightforward storytelling that is satisfying, but not especially challenging. On A Sunbeam and Laura Dean are more complex, experimenting with form to find different ways to expressively convey information.
As a closeted teenager in the early ’00s, I was starved for queer content that mainstream comics publishers weren’t interested in producing. I can only imagine what life would have been like if I had had comics like the ones First Second has put out in recent years, exploring a range of LGBTQ experiences with stories that affirm identities instead of condemning them. The importance of webcomics cannot be understated in this queer movement, and creators get the attention of big publishers by putting their work online to build a library of content and develop a fanbase. Check, Please! and On A Sunbeam began as webcomics, with the former racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars for the printed editions’ Kickstarter campaigns.
Last week, a study from ICv2’s Milton Griepp and Comichron’s John Jackson Miller revealed that comic and graphic novel sales hit a new high in 2018, with sales increasing by $300 million since 2012. Sales across book channels (bookstores, libraries, online retailers) have grown to the point where they are almost equal to comic stores, and graphic novel sales are nearly double those of single-issue comic books. Superheroes have little to do with that growth. Superheroes still dominate the Diamond sales charts, but the Bookscan numbers reveal that manga drives adult graphic novel sales, while kids graphic novels are ruled by Scholastic Graphix, particularly Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man series and Raina Telgemeier’s books. (The latest volume of Dog Man had a record-breaking initial print run of five million copies, and Telgemeier’s upcoming graphic novel, Guts, will have an initial print run of one million copies.)
Pilkey and Telgemeier are both passionate about inspiring children to create their own comics. The entire conceit of Dog Man is that it’s a comic book character created by kids, with an especially basic visual style that is easy for readers to replicate. Telgemeier just released Share Your Smile, an interactive graphic novel/workbook that helps budding creators understand how comics are made and gives them plenty of activities to develop storytelling fundamentals. It won’t be long until Raina’s acolytes take the industry by storm; the industry is already starting to see how the graphic novel boom has influenced a generation of creators. Their access to a wide variety of stories and voices has helped them develop their own distinct perspectives early on, and it makes the world of graphic novels a hotbed of creativity.
That influence is strong in Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me. In the acknowledgements, Valero-O’Connell writes, “Thank you to Mariko, whose work lit a fire in my heart when I was a teenager, whose books made me want to throw myself into comics and never look back.” Mariko and Jillian’s graphic novels shaped how Valero-O’Connell approached her craft, instilling creative values that prioritize honest, complex emotional storytelling. This makes her an exceptional artist, and with Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, Valero-O’Connell reaches a wide audience of young readers to become the inspiration that compelled her to create as a teenager.