Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

The No. 1 Graphic Novel for Little Lambs

Posted by Don MacPherson on March 11th, 2011

Ivy original hardcover graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Sarah Oleksyk
Editor: Charlie Chu
Publisher: Oni Press
Price: $19.99 US

My local comics retailer brought this book to my attention, noting that he thought it was the sort of thing I’d enjoy, based on past purchases I’d made and discussions we’d had. The book design was certainly appealing, as was its pedigree — Oni Press releases are always of interest to me. When I got the book home and started to make me way through it, though, I thought at first maybe this wasn’t the book for me. With my 40th birthday not that far behind me, I suppose I’m officially middle aged, and I couldn’t imagine how I’d be able to relate to a teenaged, female protagonist with an attitude problem and a passion for art. I set the book aside after reading a few pages and only recently came back it. To my surprise and pleasure, I soon discovered that I could relate to the title character. I didn’t see my own teenage years reflected in her, though, but rather moments from my 20s and 30s, oddly enough. Judging from comments in the introduction, Sarah Oleksyk is an accomplished comics creator, but this served as my introduction to her work. It’s strong, honest and at times visceral. The glimpse she provides into one girl’s dysfunction and process of maturation isn’t at all predictable, which makes it all the more interesting.

Ivy’s an angry teenager. Her mother is pressuring her to go to business school after graduation when she really wants to study to be an artist. Her friends are becoming distant, as she’s unaware that they’ve lost patience with her negative attitude and outbursts. While her art teacher is supportive of her aspirations, there’s another one of her teachers that has it in her for her. But some good things are also happening for Ivy, and among them is her new, long-distance boyfriend, who’s a kindred spirit. What she doesn’t know, though, is that might not be such a good thing for her.

The most vital component of this story is youth as the creator explores the tumult of adolescence, so one of the key factors required for the art to succeed here is the cartoonist’s ability to convey youth. Oleksyk pulls it off without a hitch. The title character never comes off as a woman but neither does she look like a child (she acts it, sometimes, sure). If anything, Oleksyk is too successful when it comes to immersing the characters in youthfulness. A couple of the adult characters — notably, Ivy’s mother — don’t quite look much older than the teen players in the drama, but it’s a minor distraction at best. One can also see that the artist grew more comfortable and confident with these characters over the course of the book. There’s greater detail and definition to be found in later pages, and the linework even seems more purposeful. I got the impression of greater caution in the earlier pages, almost as though the creator was still discovering the characters, their space and their stories. That could be all in my mind, as I too grew more comfortable and interested in the title character as the book went on.

Oleksyk has opted to set this story sometime in the past, before teens were all walking around texting on cellphones and before the Internet, let alone Facebook. It’s a smart choice, as the story works better without those modern elements. Ivy’s journey later in the book — disconnected from everything she’s known before — wouldn’t be as compelling and dramatic if she were still potentially connected to her life by a Blackberry. Traditional mail is an important device in the story as well, not only providing her initial connection to Josh in another state, but to the art school she dreams of attending.

One of the things I liked about the plot is that it’s not predictable, though it is logical. I wasn’t expecting the significant divergence later in the book that takes the title character out of her usual environment, but it did make sense. So did Ivy’s eventual adoption of a more empathetic attitude toward others — her mother, her rival at school. The horrible things she experiences end up being the best things that could’ve happened to her, as they’re what finally enable her to grow. The one blip in the script in terms of organic, logical progression is Ivy’s mother’s explosion. Her sense of betrayal and inappropriate anger made sense, yes, but the eruption is too sudden. There’s no buildup to that moment, not enough a stronger hint of the hurt that she’s buried inside of her as a result of being abandoned by Ivy’s father.

Oleksyk lays the foundation for Ivy’s problems by demonstrating that she brings some of her woes on herself, so her character isn’t all that likable at first. It makes the earlier scenes a little harder to get through as a reader. Due to that initial impression, I thought there wasn’t going to be much for me in this coming-of-age story. By delving further into the book and Ivy’s life, I was pleased to learn I was wrong.

Ivy feels as though her friends have shunned her (and they have, to a certain extent), and it’s something I think we all go through at some point. I know I have, and so to me, Oleksyk’s script and plot really ring true. The pettiness and social politics of high school are also familiar — unfortunately, the same sort of dynamics can arise in many workplaces. And Ivy’s excitement over her connection with Josh — although it’s artificial, thanks to his charm and manipulations — is easily relatable as well. I’m married to a wonderful woman, and our relationship started out as a long-distance thing as well. My point is this: one needn’t connect with Ivy through one’s teens years. Though it focuses on a teenager’s coming of age, it’s an adult story too in a lot of ways. There’s a nice balance between chaos and serenity, between trivial drama and real crises. It’s makes for an engaging read — as long as one gets past the initial vision of Ivy as a brat. 8/10

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2 Responses to “The No. 1 Graphic Novel for Little Lambs”

  1. Murray Says:

    This sounds like it could have fit into DC’s Minx line of books, and I enjoyed most of those tales, even though I was hardly the target audience. ONI tends to do these types of stories well, and this one looks to be in line with some of their past efforts. I like Sara’s art style quite abit. It’s got a cartoony feel to it, but also has a realistic bent. Kinda reminds me of Colleen Coover’s work. I’ll give it a look the next time I’m at a con.

  2. *Ivy — Recommended » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] while the world around her is solid, grounding her. I didn’t even notice, until I read Don’s review, the lack of technology — Ivy writes letters instead of email, for instance, and uses pay […]