Sunday, October 05, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #276: Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

Modern comics have two mainstreams these days, though most people don't realize it. There's the old familiar one, the comic-shop world of brightly-colored costumes, unfeasable anatomy, codes against killing that are unbreakable until the big crossover, and wish-fulfillment powers. Those folks have monopolized the comics conversation for so long that they've nearly made comics readers forget about editorial cartoons and strip comics and every other kind of cartooning out there.

But another mainstream has appeared in the last decade or so, running almost entirely through different distribution channels -- bookstores (online and physical) and school fairs and libraries -- that is probably around the same size as the long-underwear "mainstream," with a very different style and focus. Those books tend to have more appeal to women, to teenagers, to casual or rare comics readers: they're stories of real people's lives, set in real worlds. A lot of them are memoirs; publishing in general has had a flood of memoirs since the '90s, and the wider culture has an insatiable demand for "reality." Comics-shop readers often ignore or denigrate that mainstream, if they even realize it exists -- sometimes even in the same breath as a complaint that more people aren't reading the story of who Batman's punching this week. But that's their problem; we don't need to be hemmed in by genre boundaries and gatekeeping if we don't want to be.

In that second mainstream, Raina Telgemeier is a star: her first major solo graphic novel, Smile, was a #1 New York Times bestseller, an Eisner winner, and is in tens of thousands of classrooms nationwide. (And it was, true to the stereotype of that genre, a memoir.) Her follow-up, Drama, was nearly as commercially successful and a wonderful, heartfelt story of young love and ambition. And now she's back with another memoir -- a "sequel" to Smile, in the sense that it's another story of her own life, set when Raina was slightly older than she was in Smile -- in Sisters, the story of one long car trip, a whole bunch of pets, and one prickly relationship.

Telegemeier has a lovely naturalistic style in her writing and a soft, rounded line for her people: cartoony eyes that blow up to show surprise, the flailing arms and screaming mouths of tween sisters in full fight, dingbats appearing above heads to show love or anger or cursing -- she's not afraid to use all of the tools of cartooning with love and close attention. She tells this story through the lens of that one long car trip -- from the family home in San Francisco to a reunion in Colorado Springs -- dropping into flashbacks to add depth and explanations to the main story.

Raina is fourteen here; her sister Amara is nine. (And for those who have siblings or children, that's enough to explain a lot of tension -- five years is a serious gap between same-sex siblings.) There's also a younger brother, Will, who's six -- some creators might have been tempted to leave him out to sharpen the focus, but Telgemeier embraces the complexity and messiness of a real life. This is only the first example of that -- there are undercurrents to the car trip itself that only come out late in the book. Telgemeier is looking at her life at age fourteen through the lens of her stormy relationship with Amara, but the life is larger than that relationship, as life always is.

Both Raina and Amara want to draw and be artists; this fuels some of the conflict. They have different interests: Amara loves pets and desperately wants a snake, while Raina is frightened of them. And Telgemeier presents Amara as very strong-willed and stubborn, and her young self as avoiding conflict and hiding behind headphones. All of that makes them clash, even when they each have their own rows in their mother's VW microbus heading through the Rocky mountains.

Telgemeier doesn't close all of her loops or answer all of her questions in Sisters; it's primarily the story of that one car trip, with some look backwards, so it doesn't tell us anything about what happened to Raina and Amara after that summer, over any of the twenty years since then. But that's one of its joys: this is a book focused on a time and a point in Raina Telgemeier's life, and she has the discipline and skills to maintain that focus, to tell us the story as it happened and draw us into her life then and there.

Sisters is a broader book than Smile was, centered less in young Raina's own head -- and that's thoroughly appropriate for this story of a Raina a few years older, looking at her family and the world around her and thinking of the ways she might fit into those spaces. The drawing is lovely, the story is engrossing, and the reader both gets exasperated with Amara right along with Raina and wishes that these two girls would work through their differences and be friends as well as sisters. Boys might avoid this book out of instinct at "girl cooties," but it's only about sisters in its specificities: all families have storms and conflicts, and all readers will find a deeply moving story of family and growing up here. (And they'll also find a snake in the most unexpected place and time!)

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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