Thursday, August 21, 2014

Mike Dawson's Troop 142

This week I’ve finally gotten around to Mike Dawson’s Troop 142, a graphic novel about one Boy Scout troop’s travails over a week away at camp. I was prompted to read it because of his post about the book’s sales history on his blog. That discussion is something I’ll take up later, but first my review.

I almost don’t know how to describe how I feel about this book, which is a good thing. It’s one I’ve been thinking about constantly since I read it, and one I’ll be re-reading more than once. To say I like it or even love it is a bit misleading—it is disquieting, and while I read it I was pushed into uncomfortable places both in terms of memory and how I think about myself now, particularly as a guy relating to other guys and guy stuff.

The book revolves around boys of various ages from Boy Scout troop 142 and their fathers, as they undertake a week at Pinewood Forest Camp, a place where troops get together and do activities for merit badges and bonding—campfires, swimming, hiking, sing-alongs, and the like. But underneath that all-American framework and every-boy experience, each boy and man here bristles with the tension and discomfort of unbridled testosterone and unbound nature of this space where boys will be boys, and boys are made men.

The boys do very adolescent things—curse, call each other names, sneak drugs, plot encounters with girls, mock one another and heap abuse on anyone seemingly weak or outside the group. Meanwhile, the adults seem oblivious, in part because they’re dealing with their own ability or inability to fit in and make sense of this “man’s world.”

There’s this thing that comics can do much better than novels and movies, and that’s the ability to explore character and mood and conflict without the standard needs of plot. Here, Dawson really leans into this. By having every page simmer with tension, often unidentified, and to leave many questions unresolved in ways that force you to revisit each character and their actions and choices, standards of plot and protagonists are very muddied in this narrative.

I found myself asking over and over again, who am I rooting for? Is anyone here doing the right thing? Do men even remember the ways that they fell victim to or enacted all the terrible things boys do to other boys on the path to adulthood, and if not, can cycles of pressure and violence ever be broken?

That’s lots of heady stuff for a graphic novel, and that very headiness is, I’m guessing, part of why the book won an Ignatz award, a prestigious comics award, when it came out. So why didn’t it do very well in sales, as Mike Dawson puzzles in his blogpost? 

(Note: from here on out I’m talking about the book industry and how graphic novels fit in there. If that doesn’t interest you, then check out Troop 142, hopefully available at your local bookstore, or library, or here)

When I first saw the book, the cover didn’t grab me—something about it said it was for an audience much younger than my, and not necessarily in any way that might be fun. That being said, I picked it up from a local comic book store several weeks ago because it was on sale, and I’d been meaning to look it over to see if it would Dawson’s post spawned. In reading the post, I quickly realized that my initial assumption about the book was wrong. This is not a book for kids, or even tweens.
be a good fit for the kidslit bookstore where I work. Unfortunately, it sat in that tower of bedside “to be read” books until I saw the internet kerfluffle

And this is part of the book’s “problem.” It doesn’t seem to know its audience, something said in humorous and frank ways by comics blogger Abhay Khosla when he discussed Dawson’s post on his tumblr. But Khosla misses the point: when Khosla writes about the price point killing an audience, he is speaking as if the audience for this book is in a comic book store, which it most certainly is not. This book is squarely aimed at bookstores. It’s audience is another question entirely, but before we get there, let’s talk about what happens to books in bookstores: Books are categorized, and this book defies categorization in any number of ways.

Besides its cover, this book crosses categories in all sorts of ways. If this were a novel, it would be shelved in Young Adult. But graphic novels have never quite figured out what it means to be a YA book. Dawson’s book is narrated by an adult (sparsely, but it’s still there) so it seemingly has something to say to and about adults. Yes, but that’s not where the book gets its punch. The whole book is about how adolescent boys are shoved into this thing we call manhood in ways that are terrible and unconscious and dark. It's about being a young adult.

Another recent, great graphic novel about summer also messes with this YA thing: This One Summer, by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki is really, really good. But it’s very hard to put in someone’s hand, because the content is definitely YA or older, while the central characters are two tween girls. Having younger (tweens) or older (adults) characters' perspectives front and center is an adult literary fiction device, and one which, in the visual medium of comics, confuses potential readers trying to identify if a book is for them. The best cartoonist hitting that YA space? Hope Larson, hands down. Her books Mercury and Chiggers are still on the young side of the YA category, but everything else about them works in terms of the expectations of the audience.

The other thing that many people, including Abhay Khosla, miss when criticizing Mike Dawson’s business savvy, is that his book has a publisher. Publishers bear the brunt of the marketing and distributing of books. That’s what they do. Secret Acres has published some excellent books: Capacity by Theo Ellsworth, Gaylord Phoenix by Edie Fake, and Get Over It! by Corinne Mucha. But they did Mike a real disservice by not distributing Troop 142 in any real discernible way to the book market rather than the comics market, and by packaging the book, from cover to price point to cover copy, in a way that lets readers know what this thing is and who it sees as its audience.

Every author I know who has ever gotten attention from a publisher is thrilled, but sometimes authors and publishers are a poor match. Mike is very different from the other cartoonists of Secret Acres—namely, the others are all interested in visual textures and the comics as visual art even before narrative. The other cartoonists in Secret Acres’ stable are sold based on the visuals alone—they are marketed through posters and sample images and the like. You can hand sell the heck out of those books at festivals and conventions. So it would appear that Secret Acres doesn’t know how to market what Mike does, in part because they see their audience as the artcomic world, one they can contact through shows and select comics stores.

Dawson’s previous publisher did know how to market him, however. His first book, Freddie & Me, was published by BloomsburyUSA, a book publisher who distributed that book potentially to every brick & mortar store in every city in the US, and marketed the book using the tools familiar to booksellers. His sales reflected that difference. Unfortunately, where this leaves Mike Dawson is unclear. All I can do as a reviewer is tell you to read his books. I know I will be seeking out everything he did, not because of how easily they look like they fit into my book habit, but because, if they’re anything like Troop 142, they will push and pull at me in ways that the best books do: ways that surprise, and trouble, and delight.

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