Thursday, August 21, 2008
What's wrong with this picture?
Water Baby, the MINX graphic novel by Ross Campbell, has its problems. Ostensibly about a teen surfer girl who loses her leg in a shark attack, the book spends too much time fixating on her ex-boyfriend, an Abercrombie-and-Fitch-hot loser whose presence so dominates, the book becomes a quest to jettison the bastard. I loathed this book, and why it got under my skin so much has everything to do with being a guy but probably not in the ways you might think.
I have this friend Krista who writes for a local paper—book reviews and such. I said to her recently, “Any review copies of graphic novels you’ve got at the paper, you know, that are just sitting around? I’ll gladly take them off your hands.”
Sounds like a polite way of saying “gimme,” but there you have it. I could justify it by saying that she offered up the books. “There’s a whole closet of galleys there, piles of books for the taking, so if you want anything Justin…”
Still, kind of a jerk move on my part.
She brings me two books: New York Four, by Brian Wood (whose twelve issue Demo, a reinvention of the super power story, was just awesome) with art by Brian Maruca, and Water Baby. Both are part of DC Comics’ clunky, yet at-times endearing MINX graphic novel line, a series of books intended to compete with shojo manga for a tween to teen girl audience. A semi-success so far, at least in terms of the quality of the books I’ve seen from the line—I couldn’t tell you if they are reaching their target audience, but I’m a little dubious.
I liked New York Four—it’s no Demo, or Northlanders (his kick-ass Viking saga), and probably not the cup of tea of this target audience, but then again, I come from a time when you could read every graphic novel that came out in a given week or month, and you did, no matter what it was about. Nowadays that’s an impossible task, and besides, the range of subject and style is so broad, why would you?
(That’s a good thing, right? A world in which graphic novels come out that are, by all measures, good, but nevertheless something I’m not interested in? On the other hand—that this kind breadth and depth of catalog seemed unimaginable as recently as ten years ago? A little sad.)
As for Water Baby, this is what Krista said:
“Justin, I got some comics from the paper for review, but this one? It’s just gross.” I tried to probe “gross”—what did she mean? I knew some basics of the plot: surfer girl loses leg to shark, but beyond that, not much. And I’d been looking forward to seeing something from Ross Campbell, since I’d picked up his book Wet Moon a million times but never purchased. I’d heard good things about it, and there was something about his art that intrigued me, but all I ever saw was the second volume, so I passed.
Krista never could give me more than “I don’t know, it’s disgusting.” For me, gross and disgusting are pretty strong terms, synonymous with “makes me want to vomit.” I assumed this is not what she meant, but instead that the book made her feel, to borrow a term from the blogosphere, “squicky.” Specifically, she couldn’t stand the art, which is surprising, because by any measure, Ross Campbell can draw—clean lines, nice crisp inks, what’s the problem?
Here’s another stab at the plot: Brody, bad-ass moody surfer girl, loses her leg in a shark attack. Post attack (how post? Long enough for her to be comfortable walking around with a prosthetic leg. Long enough to have skipped any emotional reaction to having a leg bit off. Other than that? Who knows) she hangs around being moody and bad-assed. Then her ex-boyfriend Jason shows up and hijacks the book by hanging around, crashing on Brody’s couch, bringing girls over and getting so drunk he trashes the place. This leads to the inevitable road-trip to get rid of Jason from the book and, ostensibly, Brody’s life. Along the way he picks up a hitchhiker gal who ends up stealing everything they’ve got, including the car.
I mean, a jerk of all jerks, right? Unequivocal douchebag, to use a John Stewart-ism.
Sure, Campbell’s plot isn’t great, but it’s just weak—not something to get lathered up about. And, while his art is attractive (though this bears coming back to), his comics storytelling skills need improving: he’s awful at transitions of time and place. For instance, it’s entirely unclear how much time has passed from one scene to the next and there are lots of awkward shifts between dreams and the actual narrative. Campbell’s dialogue chokes on crappy attempts at verisimilitude, and his characters demonstrate little emotion other than variations on brooding: anger, pouting, self-doubt—all would be great if this were Brody’s limited emotional range, but it is every character’s emotional range.
And the endless nightmare sequences in which Brody dreams of getting chased by a shark, becoming a shark, or watching sharks eat her friends, and on and on—These aren’t very effective. Unlike the rest of the book, they’ve got great pacing, what little dialogue occurs is taught and effective, and the characters seem to have actual emotions. But for all that, these dreams are merely that: abrupt fantasies that—as the characters get both emotionally and narratively further and further from the shark attack—have little bearing on what’s actually going on.
But for all this mediocrity, what makes it worth ranting about?
Campbell’s art, to me, personifies one of the worst mental traps out there: what I call “nice guy syndrome.” Nice guy syndrome was me in high school to a T. It’s when you think you deserve a girl’s attention just because you’re not a jackass.
Think about it. Every teen movie drives this home: girl is involved with a complete jerk and the entire plot wraps around the desire for her to just see that her best friend/casual acquaintance/local nerd king is a "nice guy" and therefore should be the object of her affection. In reality? The nice guy, he’s got his own problems.
There’s this old Winona Ryder movie, Reality Bites, that exemplifies this for me: Winona Ryder has to choose between sensitive, soulful slacker Ethan Hawke and driven, slick Ben Stiller. What pissed me off is that they’re both self-involved losers and she would have been better off without either of them. But instead, she goes off with Ethan Hawke in the end because, hey, he's better than Ben Stiller.
You know, you've got to be more than just not the worst guy around to qualify as a good friend, let alone boyfriend.
So, what’s this got to do with Water Baby?
Remember how I mentioned that Campbell’s art was so damn attractive? Here’s the thing: according to the words we read, Brody is kind of gross: she doesn’t bathe, she shaves her head, she has a stump of a leg. People treat her like a freak. But Campbell can’t draw this. Instead, he draws her kind of hot, tan and athletic, with a smoothe stump that ends at the knee with absolutely no scarring.
She (and every other teenaged woman in the book, for that matter) rarely wears more than a tank top and panties, or a bikini. And the way the panels are framed force the reader to dwell on her body: despite her tiny size, her full breasts and curvy hips often sit dead center in the panels. Her best friend Lou has an even fuller figure, which seems to create some anxiety on the part of Campbell, with constant shifts of her prominent cleavage around the panel frame.
We first meet Brody on a bathroom break from surfing. She sits on the toilet, bikini bottoms around her ankles, deep in thought, contemplating tasting her own pee. Her t-shirt reads “What a pair.” This then, is what Krista found so gross: the reader is not just reading this story, but is constantly put in a position of voyeur, peeking, leering at Brody, and Lou, and every other teen girl who wanders into frame.
And it’s not just their “girl parts.” Their whole bodies are on display, as it were. Brody hates for people to stare at her stump, but the reader is often directed to look at her stump, dwell on the stump, in the context of the rest of her body: her womanly figure, her barely-there clothing. I know, eww. Right?
About here, even I’m asking myself “am I reading too much into this?” I certainly don’t think Campbell meant for any of Water Baby to read this way. But look at the cover: Brody’s head is cut off (Campbell often frames the female characters only partially in panel, cutting off their heads and legs), her breasts, big and pointy, are dead center, and the only spot of real color on Brody is her yellow bikini bottoms, here doubling as panties, peeking above her shorts. A striking image, to be sure, and interesting, but when taken in the context of page after page of this? Squicky, really.
Remember that hitchhiker I mentioned that Jason picked up? Her boyfriend dumped her and took off with all her stuff, leaving her with nothing but the improbable outfit of a bikini top, some cut-off jeans, a backpack and some hot sun glasses. Like the other women here, her body is the focus of the frame, with well-toned abs that lead to a quick make-out session in the bathroom with Jason before she joins the gang on their road trip.
And Jason, the jerk ex-boyfriend in the story? He’s really unbearable, making passes at Lou, thinking about her breasts, weighing the possibilities of hooking up with every girl in sight. He’s so over the top in his jerkiness, you can’t help but hate him, and sympathize with the girls. And maybe think “What an asshole! I wouldn’t do that—I’m a nice guy.”
And there it is. You get to stare at their bodies for 150 pages because you’re not near the jerk the guy in the story is. But you’re still staring at their bodies, frame after frame.
In the end, that still makes you feel like a jerk.