Raina Telgemeier’s Smile signaled a sea change in comics still felt today

This week: Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, the autobiographical graphic novel that situated Telgemeier as a major force in the comics industry.

Smile summary: Raina Telgemeier’s autobiographical book may take place in the 1989, but despite the fashion choices and references to that October’s Loma Prieta earthquake, still feels fresh today. Published in 2010, Smile explores Telgemeier’s complicated relationship the world around her, following her through the end of middle school and into her first year of high school. It’s a fraught time under even the best of circumstances, but young Raina deals with more than her fair share of drama thanks to an accident that knocks out her two front teeth and leaves her going in and out of several types of dental offices over the course of the book, on top of the dreaded braces/headgear combo so many pimple-faced tweens have to endure. Raina’s experience of that difficult age is examined through the lens of her teeth and temporarily damaged smile; romances are discussed in terms of how people might react to her mouth, friendships are established and fall apart based on how people treat her when they find out what happens. Struggling not only with peers that mistreat her and the way that puberty shapes her perception of self, Raina has to deal with the physical pain of near constant dental work. By the end of the book, she’s found a group of peers that accept and embrace her for who she is, but only after learning to accept and embrace herself.

Caitlin Rosberg: Smile wasn’t my first Telgemeier book, but it’s definitely one of my favorites. I got braces and headgear in grammar school, had several pretty painful tooth extractions, and wore some combination of metal and rubber bands until just a few weeks after I finished eighth grade, so Raina’s journey through orthodontia immediately had my attention. To be honest, it felt a bit like Telgemeier had managed to capture my own experiences and turn them into a book, the similarities were so uncanny. It didn’t hurt that I first discovered her work when I picked up a copy of Drama; as a long-time tech theater nerd she’d already won me over and Smile cemented my love for her work.

Judging by the awards heaped on Smile and the consistently excellent sales, I’m definitely not alone in genuinely enjoying it. Smile has been reviewed positively by all sorts of literary and librarian organizations, often specifically called out for being an excellent book for teens and tweens. In 2011, it won the Eisner Award for Best Publication For Teens, a category that was only created three years prior. Smile has spent four years on The New York Times Best Seller list, and at one point was joined by three other Telgemeier books. It’s rare for any author to so thoroughly dominate the list, particularly true given the subject and target demographic.

At a glance, this feels like a pretty big deal for Telgemeier but not necessarily all that important to anyone else—just a personal success worth celebrating. But Smile has inarguably changed the way many people look at comics, and the way the industry itself approaches audiences. It’s not that there was no one else writing graphic novels for young women when Smile came onto the scene in 2010, but Telgemeier’s incredible success legitimizes comics as suitable for YA literature and YA literature as suitable for comics, at least to people who were paying attention to the number of copies sold.

While Smile certainly benefited from the massive wave of YA novels coming out at the same time, I don’t feel like its success can be attributed solely to a boom in publishing targeted at teens. The final Harry Potter, the first The Mortal Instruments book, the first Maze Runner novel, The Hunger Games, and John Green’s Paper Towns all came out between 2007 and 2010, to say nothing of the countless popular YA books that didn’t go on to have a movie (and/or TV show) adaptation. But the majority of the most successful books from that time were paranormal or dystopian, where Smile has more in common with Judy Blume or Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club, which Telgemeier herself has been adapting into very popular graphic novels. Since Smile is structured more as an intimate slice-of-life story about personal growth rather than a disaster epic, it’s difficult for me to believe that the success, particularly critical success, of the book is based solely on an industry trend.

J.A., why do you think that Smile has earned such a lasting success among critics and readers alike?

J.A. Micheline: I think a lot of it has to do with how safe the book is. I don’t mean that in terms of the author not taking narrative risks; I mean that in terms of concern for any child that you hand it to. There’s no bad language, no violence, no sexual content. I wouldn’t have to review the contents of the book in my head if my nieces or nephews wanted to flip through it. That kind of thing goes a long way for parents, and in 2010, when the comic was published, I think a comic speaking clearly to a young demographic—specifically in such a way that everyone could back it—went a long way.

It’s interesting that you’ve said “young adult” or even “young women,” though, because I don’t think of Smile as being a comic for them, really. I’d hand this to a 10-year-old or a 12-year-old, but I wouldn’t go much older than that. It’s more of a middle-grade comic to me. And yes, I’d hope that boys would read something like this (encouraging boys to read female-directed work is important), but it would definitely be something I’d imagine girls or non-binary children would be open to.

To me, the success isn’t necessarily to do with the details of the comic so much as the fact that middle-grade comics and specifically comics directed at genders other than boys were much less prominent before Smile premiered. And given middle-grade girls (I don’t think there’s much data on non-binary children, unfortunately) are doing the most reading these days, this result definitely seems to follow. Somebody finally woke up and realized that if these kids are already tearing up prose fiction, they’d likely do the same with comics that were written and drawn with them in mind. On top of that, Telgemeier provided a comic that wasn’t just created for young kids but was also something parents could purchase without worry and recommend to other parents. It’s a recipe for success.

I don’t know what this means about my take on the comic itself, though, and whether I’m cheapening Telgemeier’s work by suggesting her success is an artifact of a hungry demographic. I probably am. To be honest, I didn’t like it all that much. Yes, I just made a whole argument for the comic being a new phenomenon, but I also never had the sense that it was doing anything I hadn’t seen before, just on the basis of narrative. I know these themes; I’ve seen them play out in this way before, regardless of the medium. Smile didn’t show me anything I hadn’t been able to find elsewhere.

But then, who cares? I’m 26 years old and I’m wondering what it means that I didn’t like a comic that wasn’t written for me in the first place. Should anybody care? (My guess: no.) Did you like it, Shea? And what do you think it means if you did—or if you didn’t?

Shea Hennum: That’s an interesting question. I wouldn’t say I liked it, but I can’t say it’s bad either. It’s just clearly a work that wasn’t intended for me—for my demographic, my tastes, my interests. To her credit, Telgemeier’s clearly someone with a certain level of craft, and I think the success of the book is because of that. I have a personal aversion to autobiography, and there aren’t a whole lot of them that really do much for me. But I’m like you, Caitlin; I also had braces growing up, headgear, and the tiny rubber bands Raina needs to correct her overbite. So Raina’s experience, in that respect, is one that I’m personally familiar with, and I think she does an excellent job of capturing just how awkward and emotionally painful that time can be in a kid’s life. That’s clearly gone a long way to making the book a success, and I think kids intuitively get a text that reflects their awkward confusion.

Like I said, this is not the kind of narrative or style of narrative that I’m necessarily interested in or want to spend a lot of time engaging with, but I do think it’s important for work like this exist. Comics is like any other publishing industry: It requires a growth in its audience, and that audience to constantly be refreshed if it’s going to survive. Aesthetically, I wish everything could be Seiichi Hayashi’s Flowering Harbour or Blutch’s So Long, Silver Screen. But I don’t have any illusions about the even short-term viability of an industry that only catered to a very narrow bandwidth of artistic interests. Telgemeier has sold an incredible number of comics, but more importantly, she has brought a staggering number of readers into comic book shops and introduced the medium to a huge contingent of young kids, many of whom are girls. I may not like the work in question, but I think books like Smile serve an important role in getting comics into the hands of a new generation and in helping to foster a love of art and storytelling in that audience.

One thing about the book that bothers me—well, not about the book per se, but about the way the book is talked about—is that, because of the way comics have been marginalized, Smile and Telgemeier’s successes in general haven’t really been talked about in any substantive way. The kinds of comics she makes, the audiences she attracts, situates her pretty firmly outside of the exclusionary “comics” discourse that goes on in niche sites. But because she makes comics, full stop, she’s regarded as beneath the more mainstream pop-culture sites. The Wall Street Journal did a profile on her a year and a half ago, but beyond that, her name rarely shows up outside of quickly forgotten press releases. At certain points she has held four out of the top five spots on the New York Times Best Seller list, which is kind of a big deal.

Oliver, why do you think Telgemeier has been ignored as blatantly as she has?

Oliver Sava: That marginalization is a big part of why I wanted us to cover Smile in this feature. Even us at The A.V. Club have been guilty of not giving Telgemeier’s work much attention, which is crazy considering how huge her books have been. Smile came out only six years ago but it’s made a massive impression (over 200 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list!), to the point that I think the rest of the industry is finally starting to take notice of the wave of young female readers that Telgemeier introduced to the medium.

A line can be drawn from the success of Smile and its follow-ups to series like Lumberjanes, Gotham Academy, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and the consistently high sales numbers of Telgemeier titles means that the audience is just getting bigger and bigger. But that audience is still largely girls, who are generally underserved by the comics media. These kinds of books are popular right now, and I would love it if that popularity was sustained and the press started to shift focus to offer more coverage to them, but I do think that a lot of the comics media still thinks that this is a fad instead of a paradigm shift.

The demographics of comics readers are changing, but other things are changing too. Readers that were introduced to the medium via Smile or other graphic novels are probably going to prefer that format rather than monthly single issues, which are both more expensive and less convenient. Those aforementioned monthly series sell much better in collections than they do in single issues, and I’m still waiting for publishers to commit to more original graphic novels. (This makes me very excited for The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up The Marvel Universe! original graphic novel out later this year.) I know that removes the extra revenue publishers get from single issues so I understand why it’s not done very often, but I can’t help but think that some of DC’s and Marvel’s lower-selling books aimed at the Smile audience would last longer if they were graphic novel series that came out every six months in digest-sized volumes.

I read Smile when it was first released and I liked it, but on this second read I loved it. There was crying that I did not expect. That first read was when I was right out of college and I was still fairly close in age to Raina. Memories of my adolescence were far fresher, and I wasn’t as compelled to tap into those feelings the first time as I was during my second read. I became way more emotionally invested in the story, and what really impressed me this time was the honesty and confidence of Telgemeier’s storytelling. She has a real talent for making the reader understand her mental state and physical pain during this major period of transition, and her cartooning is clean and detailed and full of energy.

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the cultural impact of Smile, but I want to delve into the craft and just how well Telgemeier realizes this narrative. Is there anything you find especially impressive about Telgemeier’s work, Caitlin? You mentioned Drama as your entryway—are there any definitive qualities you see across her work?

CR: There are two things that consistently strike me about Telgemeier’s output: the gentle honesty of her work and the way she draws people, especially faces. J.A. rightly called Smile a safe book, but I think Telgemeier ascribes to the same belief in children’s intelligence that Maurice Sendak did. Sendak said that he wrote true things that young people could identify with and find catharsis in because childhood was so fraught. Telgemeier has written a true, weighty book that adults don’t have to worry about children reading; her books are kind without sugarcoating how much it sucks being a kid. Oliver, most of the titles you mentioned as the legacy for Smile have truth in them, but they are not true by sheer dint of being about superheroes.

Drama isn’t autobiographical in the way that Smile and Sisters are, but it is very true to life, and admittedly it’s close enough to my own that I’m biased. I think, to J.A.’s point, that’s why I didn’t call out the specific age range of the target demographic for Smile. It’s definitely best suited to middle-grade readers, but Telgemeier’s books are, for a certain people including myself, deeply emotional and cathartic.

Telgemeier’s work may not push the medium to grow or do anything truly unexpected, but I think sometimes we value innovation so much that consistency and readability pay the price. Her writing and her art are both very consistent, and that takes a lot of hard work. I’m honestly just in love with the way she draws faces. It’s goofy and dynamic without losing meaning, and she makes it very easy to identify whatever emotion the character is feeling, without leaning on exposition to explain herself, which is not a skill every artist has.

Whenever I’m reading a comic, there are two questions I can’t help but allow to dominate my thoughts: does this story need to be a comic, and does the writer understand how to let it be a comic instead of a book with pictures? There are tons of comics that are better suited to other media, and they don’t often read well. Similarly, there are tons of writers who don’t let the art do just as much of the storytelling as the dialogue, if not more. I think Smile would lose a lot of its efficacy as a prose novel instead of a comic, and the fact that it helps struggling readers is a huge bonus. Telgemeier is a masterful storyteller; there are some pages or individual panels that might be too wordy, but she balances art and dialogue better than a lot of other pros.

It’s funny to hear that some of you think Telgemeier doesn’t get the recognition it deserves in wider circles, because I don’t think I go more than a month without encountering a conversation about it. I attend a monthly ladies’ night at a local comics shop and it comes up with some frequency. That same group also publishes an anthology I help edit, and when working with first time creators Telgemeier’s work is one of my go-to examples of solid, straightforward storytelling.

Do you think that the relative simplicity of Telgemeier’s work might impact the way it gets spoken about, J.A.?

JAM: Almost certainly. Simplicity is a tricky thing with art. Often we use the word “complex” with the at least partial assumption that complexity is good or desired, while more simple depictions can end up trivialized. I’m as guilty of this as anybody else, of course. Neither simplicity nor complexity is really an end; they’re means that ought to be used with purpose. If a comic is complex, there should be a reason for that complexity. (This is how we get to my irritation with the 16-panel pages of The Dark Knight Returns, by the way.) And if a comic is simple, there should be a reason for that simplicity.

I’ve had some conversations with friends recently about the simplicity of all-ages, middle grade, and young adult aimed works. I realized that my dislike for those kinds of materials was less about the material itself and more about what I think the approach to young people’s fiction is, and what I assume a lot of creators are thinking when it comes to making things for kids and teens. It’s not that I think that demographic is stupid so much as my experience tells me that often creators think that demographic is stupid and produce works accordingly.

And for the record: I don’t think that’s the case with Smile. My impression of the simplicity there is much more for the sake of accessibility—here meaning ease of visual understanding—than it is because Telgemeier is pandering to an audience that can’t understand complex ideas. She presents, for example, a protagonist who occasionally does the wrong thing to no actual repercussion, which reveals a complex truth: sometimes we do bad things and largely get away with them beyond, perhaps, feelings of guilt. Sometimes we don’t even say sorry.

Even if this is a comic I don’t care for, I feel similarly to Shea: it’s good that such a thing exists and is read widely. And there are lessons to be learned from its success. After all, Telgemeier has managed to kill the game despite relatively little coverage from either mainstream press or niche comics press. Publishers should be tripping over themselves to replicate that kind of reach, especially when they have the backing of major corporations and decades of culturally familiar intellectual property. Already, Oliver has suggested publishing Big Two comics in a six-month digest/trade format rather than worrying about single issues. This is very much in line with my own feelings of for the love of God, get yourselves right with the book market already. Kids, especially young kids, get access to books through adults. And unless an adult knows how to navigate direct market waters, single-issue comics aimed at this demographic will continue to fail without relying on a hefty adult contingent.

So what’s to be done? We could start by burning down the direct market—although DC seems to have decided that the solution is to make all of its comics, even the ones with “teen” in their name, for adults. Which is certainly an option.

What do you think, Shea? What are the lessons the industry can take from Smile?

SH: I think you mentioned a number of the key ones, but one of the major lessons that publishers can learn from Smile is that there is a hunger for simple and straightforward book-length comics aimed at girls. It’s the lesson traditional comics publishers appear to be resisting the most, but Telgemeier has several million copies of her books in print. That’s not to say that every book aimed at that demographic is going to become this mammoth success—most of them won’t. But when Telgemeier is outselling the comics that dominate the niche comics news sphere—often by orders of magnitude—it takes a real idiot to keep their head down and not even attempt to replicate that success.

Oliver’s idea’s about remodeling how we publish and sell the kinds of graphic novels or comics that would appeal to these kids is interesting, but I’m not convinced that would actually solve the problem we have. I think with Barnes & Noble, Amazon, digital comics, etc., people can access the comics they’re interested in. They can hop on Twitter and ask for recommendations or, in the case of Amazon, an algorithm can alert them to “more like this…” Obviously, and to Oliver’s credit, I think his idea would help as a step toward accessibility, which is never a bad thing. But the real hurdle that a lot of these comics have to overcome is the short-term mentality of a lot of these publishers. Books like Ms. Marvel, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and the recent Prez—these are books aimed at young people, which means they’re being consumed as collections or digitally. But if publishers are looking at direct market sales and basing their publishing decisions principally on that? The books are never given the opportunity to find an audience, simply because that audience doesn’t consume comics they way a 45-year old Wednesday Warrior might.

So I think publishers could benefit greatly from altering the size and publication schedule of their comics, and I think publishing more comics for kids—not simply appropriate for kids, but actually made for kids—is potentially incredibly lucrative. But Smile’s success is something that, unfortunately, traditional comic publishers seem totally uninterested in replicating. To do so would require a complete and fundamental reorganization of priorities, a plenitude of patience, an embracing of and support of new distribution models, and a robust effort to appeal to new demographics—not to mention the necessary capital to affect those changes. And it would require them to do what they have proven completely incapable of doing over the last 40 years, which is: to stop caring about the vocal minority of people who hate everything they do and buy every comic in spite of that.

I worked in a comic book shop for a number of years, and every three or four weeks this customer would walk in, ask for his pull list, look at it, and proceed to complain about how Marvel was “fucking me. They fucked me again. They won’t stop fucking me.” And every month he would buy the Thor issues he seemed really upset about. That gentleman is, in my experience, representative of the people who complain about “How come Barry Allen isn’t the Flash any more?” or whatever. Smile is like a glimpse at a comics industry that isn’t driven by boring, tasteless, spineless, and overly conservative people who simultaneously berate and reward publishers no matter what they do. Unfortunately, I don’t see the dominant milieu of the comics industry changing any time soon.

Oliver, are you as fatalistic about the comics industry as I am? Do you think it can change, or do you think Smile and successful books like Smile are going to continue to be, ironically, marginalized by their success?

OS: I absolutely think it can change, and I think it will change. Just look at how much the comics landscape has changed in the last 10 years. Demographics are shifting and publishers are starting to respond to that, and the continuing rise of digital comics has forced the industry to reconsider its distribution model. Marvel and DC have the benefit of huge corporations to keep them afloat so they’re less concerned with making big changes to adapt, and Diamond still has a stranglehold on the direct market, but companies like Image, Dark Horse, IDW, and Boom! are devoting more attention to comics targeted to kids, teens, women, and LGBTQ readers and are making sure they get collections and graphic novels in bookstores. Then there are the comics divisions of major book publishers like Macmillan (First Second) and Scholastic (Graphix), which are introducing a huge number of young readers to comics by getting these books in libraries, classrooms, and book fairs.

Comics are being pushed as legitimate reading for kids, and it’s a big deal that the United States’ current Ambassador For Young People’s Literature is cartoonist Gene Luen Yang. I got to moderate a BookCon panel this year that Yang was a part of, and he was talking about how ideally kids would read equal amounts of chapter books, picture books, and graphic novels because each format offers something different and exercises different comprehension skills. If schools are indeed taking cues from the ambassador for structuring their curriculum, this means even more comics are going to end up in the hands of kids, and surely some of those readers are going to want to continue exploring the medium.

As you mentioned, there are several million Telgemeier books in print, and these are the kinds of books that are cultivating a new generation of comics readers. While I’m sure there are plenty of kids that are driven to comics by the presence of comic-book superheroes in other media, they’re not being catered to by those publishers the way they are by First Second or Graphix. Those that have been with Telgemeier since she started adapting The Baby-Sitters’ Club a decade ago are either adults now or very close to adulthood, and I think we’re just starting to see the impact this new wave of consumers will have on the larger industry. There probably won’t be a huge change in single issue numbers because these readers are accustomed to graphic novels and collected editions, but I predict that numbers for hardcovers and paperbacks will continue to climb.

I feel like too often people think of Marvel and DC as the primary forces in the comics industry, and while they do dominate the monthly single-issue sales charts, they are far from the industry leaders when it comes to graphic novels. While I consider all graphic novels to be comics, it does feel like graphic novels have developed their own separate industry that has more in common with book publishing, and companies like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly have taken big strides to become major forces in that world. I suspect that when readers of Smile grow up, they’ll probably be more attracted to works from those graphic novel publishers rather than Marvel or DC, and I think that’s a great thing. There’s some incredible work being done in the graphic novel field right now, and while it would be nice to see some of those readers embrace monthly comics, they certainly have no obligation to do that.

What matters most is that these books are reaching a huge audience and introducing those readers to graphic storytelling, which will hopefully inspire a new generation of comic-book creators as well as consumers. Smile is a book that tells kids that their personal stories are important and shows them a way to tell those stories through words and pictures, and I’m sure it has influenced readers to create their own comics. (That sounds like a good exercise for kids reading Smile in the classroom.) My mind keeps going back to those millions of Telgemeier books in print, and that number makes me very optimistic about what’s to come in the future of comics. That’s millions of readers being exposed to this medium, and if even a small fraction of them are inspired to follow Telgemeier’s example, that’s still a significant number of new voices being guided by a very positive creative influence. It’s easy to be fatalistic about comics sometimes, but books like Smile are a big reason why I still hold on to hope.

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