The superhero 12 miles from Manhattan

ms marvel vol 1Ms Marvel vol 1: No Normal
by G Willow Wilson (writer) and Adrian Alphona (artist)

When Marvel launched a new Ms Marvel series in February 2014, it got a fair bit of press attention for starring their first Muslim superhero. Add to that the fact that the series is edited and written by women, and cue a lot of clamour about how comic books are changing. What interested me more, though, was that it had a teenage female lead, making it effectively a coming of age story, and I’m a sucker for those.

Kamala Khan is 16 and lives in Jersey City in the US with her parents and older brother. She idolises the Avengers and resents the strict rules imposed by her parents and religion, but as rule-breaking goes she keeps it small, because she does want to honour her parents and her god. So it’s a big deal when she sneaks out of the house one night to attend a party. Of course that just has to be the one night that a mysterious green mist descends on Jersey City that does something decidedly weird to her.

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The right kind of quirky

Submarine
by Joe Dunthorne

I have heard a lot about this book over the past couple of years, including some fascinating interviews with the author about his second book, released last year. So I was very pleased when a friend offered to lend me both book and film.

It’s the story of Oliver, a teenage boy in Swansea with an overactive imagination and slightly detached emotions who somehow managed to draw me in without being an entirely sympathetic character. The book is set in 1997 and 1998, making Oliver’s world not very far removed from my own teenage years. Like a lot of 15 year olds, he has a lot on his plate. There’s mock GCSEs, girls, staying on the right side of the school bullies, his dad’s depression and his mum’s flirtation with her hippy ex-boyfriend. It’s a lot for one year, even without Oliver’s slightly unusual coping methods.

His way of dealing school bullies? Become one himself. Not that he’s ever the leader, but he hangs around with the bullies and views himself as one of them, though others don’t see him as a bully, which is just one of the clues that he is not an altogether reliable narrator. Another clue is his early visit to a physiotherapist, which Oliver arranges so that he can tell his parents he is seeing a therapist, which he hopes will make them open up to him. When he realises he recognises the doctor from his neighbourhood he starts to discuss various neighbours and is perturbed to be told that all his invented theories about them are wrong. So he decides that the doctor must be a compulsive liar.

There are two girls in Oliver’s life – Zoe, also known as Fat, and Jordana, another of the group who hang out with the bullies. Zoe is the prime subject of their bullying but Oliver can’t help noticing her perfect skin and thinks about ways to help her become a stronger person and not a victim. Jordana caught Oliver’s eye with her love for pyromania but since her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour she is getting softer, which Oliver dislikes.

Oliver’s narration is pitch perfect. He is intelligent, with a love of words and meanings, but his skewed view of the world produces a lot of humour. He does not see the ridiculousness of some of the situations he creates for himself. His attempts to save his parents’ marriage are at times extreme, but the fact that he is trying so hard for them is undeniably sweet. And it’s reassuring to see that he is not as cold as he can sometimes appear.

I did not laugh out loud but I did find this funny and very real. I am definitely interested in Dunthorne’s second book.

As an aside, the film of Submarine, directed by the excellent Richard Ayoade, is also very good. Though some details have been changed and for some reason Ayoade has chosen to not give the action a firm setting in time, he captures the mood of the book perfectly. How unusual: a book and film adaptation of it where I rate both highly!

First published by Hamish Hamilton 2008.

Drifting, teenage style

Lost at Sea
by Bryan Lee O’Malley

It was inevitable, after my great love of the Scott Pilgrim books, that I would search out O’Malley’s earlier work, and this is it – a simple, sensitive tale of teenage confusion. It’s touchingly written and artfully drawn.

O’Malley sticks to black and white for his comics, making great use of plain black or white backgrounds to highlight moments of loneliness, with a surprising amount of detail packed into other panes.

The story is simple and yet at times can be hard to follow. This is because the main character, 18-year-old Raleigh, is both jumbled up herself and reluctant to tell the story that she is telling. Initially I found that irritating but then I relaxed into it as I realised how necessary it was to illustrate Raleigh’s state of mind.

Action switches between a road trip from California to Vancouver, to the events that led to the road trip, and sometimes further back still. The story touches on lost friends, parents divorcing, first love, losing your soul (possibly to a cat) – the usual teenage stuff. It’s familiar without being cliché, sweet without being saccharine, quirky without being unrelatable.

Fans of the Scott Pilgrim books may not all love this as much as I do. This has none of the geekiness, boyishness or the comedy. What they have in common, in addition to the great art and believable dialogue, is the sense of drifting aimlessly through life. Those who criticised that in 20-something Scott Pilgrim may find it more forgiveable in 18-year-old Raleigh.

Published 2002 by Oni Press.

The end of childhood

Ripening Seed
by Colette
translated by Roger Senhouse

Colette is one of those highly rated authors whose works I continue to read but fail to be bowled over by. I think I understand the attraction but I am not personally attracted.

This book is, based on my experience, a typical example. The story is simple, the writing is simple, with lucid descriptions and a lot of detail about the setting. Characters’ thoughts and feelings are voiced and yet we never truly get to know them. Perhaps it doesn’t help that the book is so short.

Vinca and Philippe’s families have holidayed together in Brittany every summer of their young lives. They have grown up together thick as thieves, under the assumption that their innocent friendship will one day turn into marriage. But this summer Vinca is 15 and Phil is 16 and suddenly teenage hormones make it hard to remain innocent. The appearance of a mysterious older woman in Phil’s life only complicates things further.

The storyline is largely predictable because, well, people are. There is a definite air of sadness about the loss of innocence; in fact I found the point to be pressed a little too hard. Maybe it’s because I was never sad to leave my childhood behind (because I was always eager to grow up, not because I had a bad childhood), but I find it hard to relate to this series of delicate, poignant moments.

Some of the language is beautiful and the story has stood the test of time pretty well, which I think is greatly helped by the seaside setting – kids still swim, rockpool, clamber over rocks and largely exist without noticing their parents.

I will continue to buy Colette’s books when I spot them in second-hand bookshops (few if any of her books are still in print in English) because they’re not bad and maybe one will touch me and get me enthusing.

First published 1923.
This translation first published 1955.