First Second is a blessing for teachers. They publish graphic novels for a very mixed audience, from younger kids to adults, on a variety of topics, from photo-journalism inspired graphic work to graphic novels about ghosts or second generation Chinese immigrants… Add to that that they have supplied teachers with quite a lot of lesson plans, activities and discussion questions for some of their most famous publications, and you have yourselves a real blessing for teachers with reluctant readers in their classes… and reluctant readers… there’s plenty of those around. This year, the cat had a 16-year-old boy who, for the first time ever probably, read all graphic novels for his required reading, 3 of which were First Second publications , and all of which he genuinely liked.
I’ll be very happy to introduce him and kids like him to three other First Second publications I recently acquired. They all three have a bit of a supernatural slant too, which is just what a lot of these kids are looking for, what with the popularity of The Walking Dead and all. First there is Brain Camp, a collaborative effort of Susan Kim & Laurence Klavan (text) and Faith Erin Hicks (artwork). Brain Camp is the story of 2 “underachievers”, Jenna and Lucas, who are sent to a very special summer camp, Camp Fielding. Once there, weird stuff is going on, with weird food and missing cabin mates. Turns out the food is what is used to subdue the kids at Camp Fielding before they are inoculated with some serum that causes an alien (which weirdly looks like an evil chicken!) to grow inside their bodies. Story-wise, this didn’t really stand out for me, but this is one book you have to read because of the great talent of Faith Erin Hicks who did the artwork.
And she proves what a great visual artist she is in her solo work Friends with Boys. Unlike Brain Camp, this one is in black and white, which somehow works a lot better for her style of drawing than the colored images of Brain Camp. Maggie has been homeschooled for a long time. But now that her mother has left the family, she has to go to high school for the first time. She hasn’t really had any friends before besides her brothers, and because there are 2 other kids there, Lucy and Alistair, who also seem to eat their lunch alone, they end up teaming up. Huge bonus here, besides the exquisite artwork, is Maggie as a heroine coming into the world by way of the high school experience. A nice touch was when Maggie claimed she wasn’t really into typically girl stuff growing up with all those brothers, but loved kick ass heroines like Ripley from Alien. There’s a supernatural element in this story too, since Maggie is able to see the ghost of a woman. This part of the story, though, isn’t properly developed…
The 3rd First Second publication is Life Sucks, another collaborative effort, this time by Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria and Warren Pleece. This time around the supernatural creatures are vampires, but we’re not really talking about those gothic-romantic Anne Rice vampire-types, nope… this time around, we get vampire Dave who works the night shift at the Last Stop corner store and his undead life literally sucks (no pun intended). Dave’s master, who’s also his boss is Radu (or Lord Arisztidescu), an immigrant vampire who has discovered the wonders of capitalism in the USA, and can’t stand lazy-ass no-good American vampires who take multiple paid breaks… Dave is in love with a mortal girl, Rosa a Goth who likes poseurs in fancy black capes and fake pointy teeth, which may or may not have been made by the same guy who did the fangs in Buffy. Dave is also a “vegetarian” and for a while there it looks like he might get somewhere with Rosa, until Wes, his vampire “brother” , a surfer vamp starts to get interested in Rosa too. Life Sucks is definitely one fun vampire story, with lots of winks and nods to other vampire stories, and some nice critical touches. This one will make you forget about all those mediocre vampire stories before you can say Bite Me!
Lost at Sea is something complete different from the three First Second publications. It’s the first published graphic novel of nerd hero Bryan Lee O’Malley, who’s obviously known for his Scott Pilgrim series. Lost at Sea centers on Raleigh, an 18-year-old girl who claims she has no soul: it was stolen by a cat. Now, that is something the cat can get behind, of course, but despite this feline premise and the really deceptively simple yet lovely art by O’Malley, the story of Raleigh didn’t grip me as much as it should have. In essence, this is a story about a girl who pines for a boy and feels ‘lost’ without him. OK, there is lots more existential teen angst going on and there’s some bonding going on between Raleigh and the other teens on the road trip, but the angst and confusion of being a teen has been done more interestingly and more grippingly. The existential ennui didn’t really annoy me like it did in for instance this book right here, but the emo-stuff is still pretty tiring.
Last in line is G. Neri’s Yummy, the Last Days of a Southside Shorty, a documentary graphic novel, based on the true story of 11-year-old Robert “Yummy” Sa
ndifer, one of the many kids who were caught up in the gang violence of Chicago’s Southside in the 1990s. Yummy is basically
a re-telling of the story as it appeared in several media sources (newspapers, Time Magazine), and the author claims that his intention was not to make any moral judgment about what Yummy did. Clearly, Yummy committed crimes, but circumstances make it hard to paint a black-and-white portrait: was Yummy (only) a villain, or was Yummy (also) a victim? Besides the poignant story of Yummy, the graphic artwork is equally gripping and will pull in even more readers. Yummy, the Last Days of a Southside Shorty is illustrated by Randy DuBurke and was also a Coretta Scott King Award Honor book in 2011. Recommended!
- Brain Camp: 3 stars
- Friends with Boys: 3.5 stars
- Life Sucks: 4 stars
- Lost at Sea: 2.5 or 3 stars
- Yummy, the Last Days of a Southside Shorty: 3.5 stars