by Raina Telgemeier, 12 pp x 5 mini-comics, $1 each
by Raina Telgemeier, online
One of the problems with championing the kind of books I tend to champion, from Moby Dick to Philip K. Dick, is that it might come across that the stuff I really like has its roots in boy's adventure fiction. After all, Moby Dick is a sophisticated sort of adventure on the high seas, and PDK's bread and butter was always androids and future thrillers. And it's true that I do like actual like boy's adventure fiction (I'm of the opinion that Treasure Island is phenomenal work of art—go read it and tell me I'm wrong). But I don't want to give anyone the impression that I only like books with guns, explosions and/or androids. (Though they don't hurt any.)
After my review of Richard Grayson's And to Think He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street, one might think that I don't like cute, autobiographical vignettes. Not so! To wit: the Take Out mini-comics of Raina Telgemeier. Though, I'm not sure if I can quite explain why I like Raina's comics so much. (She'll forgive me if I don't refer to her as Telgemeier; through her comics, she's become too personalized in my mind for that.) Her little stories about her friends and family and childhood are often pointless flights of fancy, but they're delightfully pointless flights of fancy. For instance, at one point she spends two pages wordlessly depicting her brother and herself as little kids playing with toothpaste. That's it, just two pages of pure childish joy. Another page is just one big panel of a young Raina dancing, with more dancing Rainas disappearing on either side, creating motion. Wonderful. Or just take a look at this page about decorating a Christmas tree. When Raina and her family go visit her grandmother, and Raina asks her where she'd like to go, she says, "Doesn't matter, as long as I'm with you guys!" who could blame her? Not just because she's in an old folks home full of screaming, senile elderly people (the intended meaning), but because who wouldn't want to hang out with Raina and her family? They're great!
I often wonder how self-conscious Raina is about her portrayal of herself. Because, as rosy a picture as it is, it never comes off forced, it never seems like rosiness is the impression that Raina's trying to present. Perhaps no scene more highlights Raina's childhood innocence as when her father gives her a manga depicting the bombing of Hiroshima (Barefoot Gen). Raina cries and cries and complains, "I think that book ruined my life." Finally, she concludes, "It was just a comic book." To which her mother responds, "Raina, there's no such thing as 'just a comic book.'" And amen to that. But until the sequel to Take Out came along, Smile, one would have thought that reading a comic book about Hiroshima was the worst thing that ever happened to Raina. And God bless her for it; Take Out gave me a voyeuristic look into the happy childhood I never had.
Smile is a more sustained narrative than Take Out, and sometimes in the midst of the all the anxiety Raina experiences over falling and knocking her two front teeth out (Smile's main plot point) and her first crush, I miss the kind of simple joy that typified Take Out. I think maybe if Raina combined the sensibilities of the two books, it would bring her work to another level. For instance, imagine if this one-pager about a cat playing with string were put in the middle of Smile, with maybe some characters from the story helping the old lady pick up her yarn and then continuing on with the plot line. This is not to interfere with Raina's autobiographical purposes; all I'm trying to say is that I think if Raina broke up Smile with some of the sort of vignettes that made Take Out so enjoyable, it would give the book some buoyancy; the vignettes would slow down the pacing and set the mood in the way that similar, short, unconnected pieces often do in manga.
That all said, Smile still manages to grab me. Far and away my favorite page of Smile so far is this one in which Raina sees The Little Mermaid for the first time. I never liked The Little Mermaid myself, but man do I love Raina loving it.
Raina's other major project is a graphic novel adaptation of The Babysitter's Club: Kristy's Great Idea, which, unfortunately, I cannot bring myself to read. As much as I like boy's fiction, I'm afraid this level of girliness is just a few steps beyond me. But I'm sure it's wonderful.