I recently read War at Ellsmere, by Faith Erin Hicks. I hadn’t read anything of hers before, and I am in the midst of rectifying that lack.
And it is a lack; Hicks’ work is good.
War at Ellsmere is probably best described as a YA graphic novel. The protagonists are in school, and they are struggling with the issues of adolescence. What is my place in the world? How do I fit in, how do I contribute? What do my parents want from me, and how can I live up to that (or disappoint them)? What worth do I have? I think everyone I know has some work of fiction with which they bonded during this period of their life. For me, personally, it was Uncanny X-Men and the novels of Mercedes Lackey, so whatever got you, dear reader, through the travails of being fifteen years old, I shan’t judge.
The story, in brief: Jun is sent to attend Ellsmere boarding school. She gets along with her roommate, Cassie, but has an instant enemy in Emily. Rivalry ensues. The conflicts escalate until a final confrontation in the woods on a dark and stormy night reveals that Ellsmere and the world are a lot more complicated than anyone guessed.
It’s a straightforward enough plot. Which isn’t unexpected, given that there are only so many plots in the world. What makes War at Ellsmere good is how Hicks pulls us into caring what happens to the characters. The characters are complex and fully-realized — the narrative protagonist, Jun, is not always right or kind. The villain, Emily, has motivations of her own, besides just being the villain. Emily’s hench-persons are not blind to their leader’s faults. And Cassie, the meek best friend, reminds us that even quiet people have lives of their own, of which we often know nothing.
Like all good YA fiction, War at Ellsmere addresses the questions of adolescence without condescension. The problems are presented as real and difficult, but without ever lapsing into a Dead-Poets’-Society-style melodrama. Death is not on the line. It doesn’t need to be; failure and the disappointment of one’s respected elders is quite sufficient a threat.
War at Ellsmere is a quiet narrative. But that quiet contributes to the story. I’ve recently heard reviews of Jeff Lemire’s work — Essex County and Sweet Tooth — that remark on the emotional power of his dinner-table scenes. Two people, eating dinner, with a world of hurt and uncomprehension sitting in the silence between them. War at Ellsmere isn’t that emotionally painful, but the silences in the panels convey the uncertainty and upheaval of adolescence. The wide, silent shots of the crowded halls show the loneliness. The tight close-ups of Jun and Cassie, or Emily and her friends, show the bonds between them.
I hear a lot of talk on the internet about comic “audience.” There seems to be some sort of idea that Western (as opposed to manga) comics are aimed at men, and that girls will not find most comics interesting. (Let’s not get into the fact that male humans in this discussion are frequently referred to as adult “men,” while female readers are referred to as “girls.”) The logical conclusion of this is that special, different comics need to be written specifically aimed at a female audience. It is also presumed that these “girl comics” will have nothing of interest to men. I find the entire conversation to be problematic. (It says a great deal about the speaker’s understanding of men and women.) And it artificially divides comic books by the gender of the supposed audience, not by worth, or quality, or type of plot, or even the sort of protagonist.
This is, dear reader, problematic.
Faith Erin Hicks’ work was originally described to me as “great comics for girls.” Again, while this says more about the person giving the recommendation than the books, I did try to read War at Ellsmere with an eye towards figuring out why that description had attached itself to this book. The best I can come up with is that the cast is all female (and none of them have huge breasts,) and there are no superpowers. Does this mean we think men only read comics with male protagonists and objectified women? Does it mean we think women only read comics with no superpowers? Everyone who reads this blog knows this is false. Yet the idea persists, and as long as it persists, War at Ellsmere gets touted as a chick book, or a book for girls, and the marketing keeps it out of the minds of readers who like good comics.
As readers and fans it’s not our job to market comics, to worry about correct audience, or to figure out advertising strategy. It’s our job tell each other about the good comics. War at Ellsmere is one of the good books. It is for everyone who was or is a teenager. If that just doesn’t sound up your alley, though, may I recommend Zombies Calling, available from SLG Publishing, Demonology 101, found online, or Ice, another online feature from Hicks (and my current favorite of her works.)
You’ll have to excuse me, now — I have to go catch up on Ice and the other good comics I’ve missed.
Email: sigrid @ fantasticfangirls.org