The webcomics blog about webcomics

Book Week Starts With A Two-Fer

There’s a bunch — and I mean a metric bunch — of graphic novels in the midst of dropping, and that means it’s time to tell you what I think of them. We start out today with two from the fine folks at :01 Books, who were kind enough to send a pretty big selection of just-released and about-to-release titles over to the Fleenplex. They’re very different, but I think there’s a common thread between them that I’d like to explore, so strap in and as usual, there be spoilers in these waters.

At first glance, Stargazing (words and art by Jen Wang, colors by the incomparable Lark Pien) and Mighty Jack And Zita The Spacegirl (words and pictures by Ben Hatke, colors by Alex Campbell and Hilary Sycamore) couldn’t be more different.

Aside from the fact that they’re both written for kids 8-12 years old, Stargazing is a mostly quiet exploration of culture and friendship between elementary age girls in a Chinese-American neighborhood in California, and Jack/Zita is part rip-roaring modernist fairy tale, part space opera, with the fate of Earth in the balance. One’s a standalone inspired by real life, the other is the culmination of one trilogy and the coda to/crossover with a second trilogy.

And yet there’s this bit in both about making friends, about how your current friends react to your new friends, about realizing that you can fall short in being the friend that’s needed. There’s this bit in both about how especially girls of a certain age — from pre-teen to not-quite teen — can react to each other, a behavior that can only be described the the word meanness. There’s this bit in both about how rash decisions and thinking with your fists can make for larger problems (even if one only leads to in-school counseling and the other leads to maybe giants killing everybody you love).

Which is to say, the trappings of the story are probably less important than how they speak to their characters.

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Stargazing is a welcome return to form for Jen Wang; I famously — and, given the near-universal acclaim and awards bestowed, almost singly — thought her last graphic novel suffered serious structural story problems¹. The heart and friction of how people become (and stop being, and resume being) friends was there, but the broader message failed. Stargazing, like her superlative Koko Be Good, focuses on the people at the heart of the story, and the struggles that they face are very much personal.

Christine and she’s-our-neighbor-and-your-age-you-should-be-friends-okay-Dad-fine Moon approach life in different ways — Buddhist vs Christian, vegetarian vs not, free spirited vs family expectations of excellence — to the extent that Christine wonders how much Moon actually belongs to the same tradition. Moon’s confident and funny and (in an assessment that borders on extremely sad self-awareness for a 10-12 year old like Christine) possibly not Asian.

They adapt to each other and become friends, but there’s something weird under the surface that Christine can’t put her finger on: a certainty that she’s not of this planet, and a volatility that can lead Moon to act with her fists seemingly without warning.

Which, it turns out, has a knowable, physical cause. This might have been a too-pat resolution to the story, except for the fact that it’s based on Wang’s own experiences. If the story wraps up in a happily-ever-after finish that’s a little unsatisfying, I think it’s only because the reveal and resolution take place too quickly. There’s nothing wrong with the first 160 pages of Stargazing, but the conclusion needs the space to breathe a little².

Overall, Stargazing reminds me of This One Summer (which, if you don’t know how good that book is, it is necessary reading for anybody that cares about what comics can be), and I can only think of how much more Wang could have done with the page count afforded to that book. Yeah, yeah, 8-12 year old readers vs 12-18, but I think the younger kids can handle the page count.

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Mighty Jack And Zita The Spacegirl is more about the former (not to mention Lilly, occasional Goblin King, who doesn’t get title billing) than the latter, which feels appropriate. Zita’s been through her journey from untested to rookie to expert-level saver of worlds and inspirer of people. Lilly’s gotten used to being King of the goblins (maybe a little too much as her carelessness gives the giants their opening to threaten Earth from the places beyond), but Jack’s still trying to figure things out.

Sometimes he’s cautious and ends up regretting it. Sometimes he’s decisive and ends up regretting it. Sometimes he doubts he’s up to the task, but all those regrets are really stem from no more than being new to the Jack business. Recall that Jack isn’t just a name, but a title: The Jack is a protector of Earth, clever and brave. When he has the information needed to make the next decision, act on the next situation, the regrets don’t manifest. Give him as long at the Jack business as Zita’s had at the Spacegirl business and he’ll be masterful.

Heck, he’s already got the big picture thing covered. When the giants finally break through to Earth (in Jack’s backyard, no less!), he stands armed with nothing but a sword-sized key. With him are one Goblin King and a double handful of waist-high goblins, one dragon (who will only promise to take Jack’s sister to safety), a pony-sized mouse, a few assorted aliens³ and robots, a former (unarmed and somewhat hapless) Man In Black, a pair of lovable space rogues, and his Mom, all prepared to get squished4.

The giant king promises that his murderous band will provide the impetus for humanity united into an Age Of Heroes, just fight us. Jack’s answer is clever, and brave, and wise:

Nope. We’re not divided. We’re standing here. Now. Together. And we won’t let you bring violence and pain to this world in the hope that some good will come of it.

All we can do is what’s best in the moment before us. So we’re sending you home, here and now. You may have come to invade our planet.

But you picked the wrong backyard.

That wisdom comes at a cost — the Jack must stand on guard, and that means staying in the same small town, which will be mundane and boring unless dangers arise again. It means saying goodbye to friends who get to go on adventures in space. It means growing up.

But if there’s one thing that Hatke (juggler, acrobat firebreather, archer, I think tightrope walker, and a bunch of other things) has demonstrated in his own life, growing up doesn’t mean the end of adventures, it just means different ones most of the time. Jack’s already got clever and brave down, and he’ll continue to grow wise. The world may not have an Age Of Heroes, but it sure has one hell of a Jack.

Stargazing releases from :01 Books tomorrow, 10 September, and joins Mighty Jack And Zita The Spacegirl in being available wherever books are sold.


Spam of the day:

It’s all about Perfect Timing

Surprisingly, this spam did not turn out to be about some weird sex thing.

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¹ Her previous, In Real Life, I thought was a faithful adaptation of a story that wasn’t great, but that’s on Cory Doctorow, not Wang.

² I had similar feelings about Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani, which I loved, but which also felt rushed in the back quarter. Both books deserved a higher page count.

³ The most formidable of which has already said Strong-Strong proud … fall with friends.

4 Until the Spacegirl shows up with more robots, one of which is the size of a small moon, in low orbit, and has a firing solution, at which time the squishing becomes unlikely. Just work with me here.

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