Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #35: Bad Houses by Ryan and McNeil

You can always tell when a novelist moves into comics: narration boxes proliferate everywhere, giving color and commentary the way a prose story would, instead of just trusting the pictures to carry that part of the story. Sometimes, there's enough narration that the implied narrator becomes a character, with a clear tone and point of view, making the reader wonder if that's supposed to be a specific person in the story. But it probably isn't; that's just a novelist's instincts to define and form and mold coming out.

Bad Houses has more narration than it needs -- so much that it seems to be narrated by someone, even though there's no person in the story who that could be -- and that can be confusing to a reader used to comics that show rather than tell. But Bad Houses wants to tell you what you're seeing, to explain and explicate it, so that you don't think about anything any different than the way it wants you to. Does that mean writer Sara Ryan -- who is indeed best known as a novelist for teens -- doesn't trust the reader to understand from the story itself? Or doesn't trust artist Carla Speed McNeil -- much more experienced with comics -- to tell it precisely Ryan's way?

Either way, Ryan wants to tell you how to feel about her characters. Teenagers Lewis and Anne are the center here, as they meet and are drawn together, but their respective mothers -- Lewis's "Cat," owner of the estate-sale company he's the only employee of; and Anne's Danica, a nurse at the local old-folks home and world-class hoarder -- are equally important. Neither teen has a father in sight, but Zach, who ran away before Lewis was born, and AJ, the "feckless asshole" that Danica meets and starts dating during the story, are important -- more for what they influence other people to do than for who they are themselves.

They all live in the small town of Failin, Oregon. This is important in a novelistic way, which is to say not really important: it's a small town, away from big places, and it feels small and constrained and tight. Even more so to a couple of teens, of course.

So: Lewis and Anne meet at an estate sale. They meet again, begin to date. Their mothers do their own thing. Ryan tells us what we should feel about all of those scenes, until the inevitable end. It's not a bad ending: it's good for most of the characters, shaking them out of ruts and getting them to move forward. To move out of their "bad houses," most obviously.

McNeil's art is sweet and lovely and real; she's particularly good at showing family relations in faces, and in molding those faces into just the right expressions. Her art could have carried a lot more of the story than Ryan was willing to give it, but that's OK: all of the art is still there, supporting the same story. A little overdetermination never hurt anyone. And Ryan tells a fine story here: she just could have told it a little more subtly if she trusted her medium more.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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