Page 45 Review by Stephen
An all-time Page 45 classic about first love during those oh so troubling teenage years - when so much was a mystery to us, especially ourselves - this astutely observed piece of poignancy by the Tamaki cousins was originally reviewed by our Tom in 2010 who finished with the following flourish:
"Keep an eye on these two as they are going to go far."
He wasn't wrong.
Together or separately, sometimes with other artists, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki have since been responsible for LAURA DEAN KEEPS BREAKING UP WITH ME, my personal favourite graphic novel of 2019 and Page 45's Current Comicbook Of The Month, former Page 45 Comicbook Of The Months THIS ONE SUMMER and BOUNDLESS, plus the equally thought-provoking LUISA: NOW AND THEN, the Governor General's Award-winning all-ages picture book THEY SAY BLUE, and the frankly bonkers collection of comedy shorts SUPERMUTANT MAGIC ACADEMY
In light of all that exceptional elegance and eloquence, it's time for a brand-new review of this diary-driven confessional about secrecy, sexuality, suicide, the rumours which subsequently run rampant and what happens to those left behind.
"Do you think this is a club for people who are going to commit suicide or people who know people who might commit suicide?"
"Why, are you thinking of joining?"
"Ha! I'd rather hang myself!"
Oh yeah, Skim's cynical best friend Lisa is soooooooooooo very funny. She always has a disdainfully droll line or wry, witty rejoinder, but let's put this into context:
Teenage John Reddear has just committed suicide. Lisa said he shot himself (he didn't); others are saying he did it because he was gay and in love with a lad on his volleyball team (possible but unsubstantiated). So yes, John was on St. George's volleyball team, and I don't know if that qualifies him as a jock, but success in school sports certainly comes with cachet and he was pretty up-tempo and popular. But obviously he was, privately, profoundly distressed underneath. He was also going out with a blonde beauty called Katie Matthews whom he dumped but a few days earlier.
Katie was devastated. Katie drew broken hearts on her hands. And that was before the suicide.
You may consider drawing broken hearts a little on the look-at-me side, but she's a teenager, and there's a full-page portrait of Katie, genuinely distraught, being comforted in a crowd by her best friend, Julie Peters. It's a high school crowd cluttering up the walkway between lockers, and Lisa is looking back at Julie's compassion towards Katie's distress (evidenced by her wilted, imploded form) with judgemental and distanced scepticism.
To Skim, Lisa pronounces:
"It's like, please, so you break up with some tenth-grade loser and you get to act like it's the end of the world or something."
"Super lame. I mean, just because you're in the drama club doesn't mean you have to ACT all the time."
But remember that Skim echoed "lame".
It's sad, but I get that: it's easy when young to be influenced by those who are confident, forthright and seemingly worldly-wise yet corrosive. Plus Skim, with troubles at home, is otherwise reclusive, retreating into her diaries and continually doubting herself, while Lisa is her inseparable, very best friend and ally in a sea of so much hormonal competitiveness.
So John Reddear has committed suicide leaving Katie Matthews wretched, inconsolable (loss, shock... guilt?) and...
"On Monday Mrs Hornet announced in prayers that Katie Matthews "accidentally" fell off her roof and broke both her arms. How do you accidentally fall off a roof?"
Compassionate counselling goes into overdrive but neither that nor the formation of the Girls Celebrate Life club with its own school notice board has the desired effect, especially on Katie Matthews whose arms are in plaster and so is forced to have her books carried around by others wherever she goes. If you think she was looking miserable before...
The other main thread on top of Skim's toxic friendship and Katie's increased isolation, is sparked when Skim skips gym for a secretive smoke behind the proverbial bike shed, and she's caught red-handed by her English teacher, Ms. Archer.
"I was just leaving."
"Only if you don't have a light on you."
Writes Skim, "It's a rule that if an adult ask to smoke with you, you have to smoke. So we ended up talking and smoking."
What they end up talking about is 'Romeo and Juliet' which Skim thinks is stupid, a love story not worth studying.
"Maybe it's more than that. Maybe it's the story of rebellion. Maybe it's a story about two people who fall in love, when falling in love, with your enemy, is the one thing you're not supposed to do. I'm sorry you don't like it."
"Oh no, I mean, it's fine. I mean, I'm looking forward to talking about it in class."
"You should try that. That talking-in-class-thing."
Perhaps partly catalysed by that unexpected act of encouragement, the equally kind interest in Skim's real name (Kimberly Keiko Cameron - "I'll assume you prefer Kim"), the shared intimacy of a clandestine cigarette and a moment of physical contact albeit through plaster when Ms Archer draws something specific on Kim's own cast, Skim tumbles blindly in love for the very first time. And, yes, to complicate matters in an already turbulent heart in a confusing world, it's with her English teacher, Ms. Archer.
A first love drowns out everything else from lessons to casual conversations with the incessant, thunderous tom-toms pounding in your heart reverberating constantly through your head. Or is that an over-share? Sorry. Plus, this is her English teacher we're talking about, with all the responsibilities that entails. Oh, the potential repercussions!
I mean, if it's even reciprocated. What can Skim possibly hope to happen? She becomes a bit of an out-of-school stalker.
Jillian's visual storytelling came fully formed even back then. The expressions, whether musing, amused, accusing or cross-patch, convey so much emotion with so very few lines. The body forms are as diverse as they should be for a group of teenagers growing at vastly different rates, and you don't always see that acknowledged in comics.
Quite a lot of it is surprisingly sedentary (perhaps not so surprising, now that I think back on those years), but there's also a full panel-less page of serpentine sequential art similar to the dance scene in THIS ONE SUMMER and just as accomplished in its swirling movement when "this herd of ballerinas swooped into the room and chased Hien and me out of the house."
"Everybody out!" the teenage late-night, party-goers cry, but they only meant Hiem and Skim.
"We waited and waited for them to let us back in.
"After a little while Hien left.
"Hien's parents adopted her from Vietnam two years earlier and she never got invited to parties. Maybe she thought that's how people left parties in Canada. Asians first."
It's such a sad book with tender, haunting, overwhelmingly solitary art, even when in a crowd. There's little that's more lonely than being stuck in a crowd you want out of: glance back and forth at Katie throughout.
The environments are stunning, whether woodland, snowscapes or Ms. Archer's eerily lit, three-storey house at night, watched then approached from across the suburban road by Skim.
This exceptionally understanding and grounded graphic novel doesn't go where you'd expect it to, which is one of the reasons why I've always respected it so highly and winced for poor Skim when trying so tentatively - clumsily, oh so clumsily - to imply her affection.
It's full of the gauche things we do when young, and the diary entries - it is all diary entry, first-person narration - could not be more perfectly written. If one of the key elements of noir is that you must relish spending time in the narrator's head, so it is here in Skim's diary.
It strikes me that so much of this is about the contrasting nature of the public and the private - the things experienced alone in one's head - none more so than in the Katie's experience when her ex-boyfriend's private suicide becomes public property.