Posted by Don MacPherson on March 4th, 2012
Friends with Boys original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Faith Erin Hicks
Publisher: First Second
Price: $15.99 US
Faith Erin Hicks is a member of a small but vibrant comics-creating community in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the city in which I was born and visit when the opportunity presents itself (which is rarer these days than it once was). That tenuous connection alone was enough to get me to look at Hicks’ earlier works, but it was the talent I found in Zombies Calling and The War at Ellsmere that got me coming back for more. With Friends With Boys, Hicks establishes herself as a skilled and grounded storyteller, who manages to instill fun and whimsy along with the melancholy and introspection of her coming-of-age stories. With this book, she proves herself to be a cartoonist of the caliber of Bryan Lee O’Malley, Hope Larson (both of whom were once a part of that Halifax-area collective of talent), Sarah Oleksyk, Colleen Coover and the like.
Friends With Boys isn’t really meant for me. I’m a 41-year-old dude with a career, a kid and a wife. While I was never one of the cool kids growing up, I was never really an outsider either. Hicks’ story of a young teen trying to transition from home schooling to high school, from a traditional family to a single-parent situation, from the familiar and comfortable to the untested and alien — it resonated for me. And if it clicked so well for me — someone who couldn’t be further removed from what I assume if Hicks’ real audience — then I can’t imagine what a rewarding experience Friends With Boys will for be someone who can identify more closely with the story’s central character. I know it’s only February, but I feel like I’ve already read one of the best graphic novels of the year. You want to know just how good this book is? Hicks made it available (gradually) to read online for free, and I read a digital galley — and I’m still going to buy a physical copy.
Maggie McKay is about to venture into hostile, dangerous territory: high school, and it’s all the more daunting when one considers she’s been home-schooled up to this point in her life. Though getting plenty of encouragement but not a lot of guidance from her older brothers, Maggie must also move into this new phase of her life without her mother, who left the family not long ago. It’s not long before Maggie befriends a couple of outcasts — punk siblings Lucy and Alastair — but there’s someone else who’s always hanging around as well. Of course, that someone is a Victorian-era ghost woman, and Maggie’s sick of having her around.
Hicks uses the grey tones not only to add texture and depth to the black-and-white artwork, but to enhance the storytelling and characterization. Early in the book, she uses the tones to reflect the isolation Maggie feels during her first day at school. All of the students at the school are tinted with the grey tones — save for the central protagonist. It’s a simple but effective method that Hicks makes the most of throughout the book. In key sequences (namely, flashbacks), the stronger contrast of the thick black lines are abandoned and printed in the grey tones instead, helping to distinguish those scenes from the action in the present as well. While the focus throughout this book is clearly on character, some of the strongest visuals come when Hicks pauses to focus her and our attention on the setting, a small Nova Scotian coastal town. I’ve been to these towns, and she captures the culture and calm perfectly. She generally boasts a fairly simple style, but she manages to bring a lot of convincing detail and perspective to bear in those larger views of the key backdrops.
I need to make a confession here: I’ve always thought the idea of home schooling was foolish, something reclusive parents with unconventional, even outdated views resorted to in order to keep their children encased in a cultural bubble, oblivious to how the world works and what it has to offer. In just a few scenes, Hicks offers up a vision of well-adjusted, home-schooled kids, bringing credibility to the practice, at least in my eyes. It’s my own fault; I definitely prejudged without having all of the relevant information. I still don’t have that information, but Hicks’ characterization and storytelling at least opened me up to reading about it. I’m open to it not as an alternative for my own family but rather as a social development about which I need to educate myself. I still believe there are parents out there who definitely shouldn’t be home-schooling their kids, but Friends With Boys makes a strong argument there are some who can do well with the approach.
While this is first and foremost Maggie’s story, all of the supporting characters really get their own sub-arcs within the larger story. I was particularly impressed with Alastair’s quiet path to redemption. He starts the story having repaired his relationship with his sister, and his reasoned and patient effort to patch things up with others is subtly heartening.
The supernatural side of this story will likely appeal to many readers, and it certainly brings a little more color to the plot. The ghost embodies the history that serves as Lucy’s passion in life, and the fact Maggie has such a direct link to create an interesting divide between the two characters. Ultimately, Hicks uses the ghost and the history to reconnect Maggie with other characters. If anything, I think the graveyard, the ghost and the ghost-ship story do more to give the reader a sense of where the story is taking place. The legend, the small-town maritime museum and 150-year-old tombstones all set the scene effectively.
I think what I most enjoyed about Friends With Boys was it wasn’t about what I thought it was going to be about. The title leads one to believe it’s about a girl meeting new, male friends as she enters the public school system for the first time. But it’s not about that. Instead, she ends up befriending a girl, Lucy. So then I thought it was about how Maggie had only been friends with boys (her brothers), so the title was meant as a bit of misdirection. But Maggie also becomes friends with Alastair, Lucy’s brother. It wasn’t until the book’s climactic ending the true meaning reveals itself, and it’s thoroughly satisfying. All the clues are there. Friends With Boys is ultimately a story about the importance of family as a foundation for who we are and the lives we choose to live. Friends With Boys stands out as Faith Erin Hicks’ finest work, and given the strength of her past projects, that’s saying something. 10/10
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