What Does Consent Really Mean? original hardcover graphic novel
Writers: Pete Wallis & Thalia Wallis
Artist/Cover artist: Joseph Wilkins
Publisher: Jessica Kingsley Publishers/Singing Dragon imprint
Price: £14.99 GBP/$21.95 US
The significant swing of the social pendulum on the massive problem of sexual assault and harassment in society, driven chiefly by the revelations of allegedly abusive behavior on the part of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, is a powerfully positive force for societal change. It also comes as an opportune time for the creators behind this British graphic novel, which delves into such issues and chiefly what constitutes consent — and more importantly, what doesn’t.
What struck me right away about this book as I delved into it was the fact that I’m most definitely not the target audience for the book. And I don’t mean because I’m a man. This was crafted with teens in mind, even ‘tweens, depending on their level of sophistication. It’s an interesting read, offering mainly a discussion of sex and consent and dispelling myths. At first, I thought it was mainly designed to be informative, but as one progresses through the book, one discovers the characters develop their own little story arcs that resolve satisfactorily by the conclusion.
A group of four girlfriends learn rumors about a new girl at their school who purportedly transferred there due to an incidence of sexual violence where she used to live. As a couple of the girls begin passing judgment and making assumptions without any real information, their friends discover they’ve got some outdated ideas about relationships, sex and consent. Their afternoon is spent educating one another and discussing the issues, and they start to share their own experiences and misgivings. It’s not only before they encounter some boys they know, and the opportunity for more education and wider perspective grows.
Artist Joseph Wilkins boasts a simple, cartoony style here, but not one that’s terribly exaggerated. I think that’s a good fit for this material. It’s important for the intended audience to be able to identify with these characters, to see themselves in the discussion, but at the same time, allowing for nuanced, quiet reactions among the characters helps with how messages are conveyed. The characters — and by extension, the reader — are participating in an important, reasoned discussion, and over-the-top reactions would likely intrude on the discourse rather than contribute to it. There’s an openness to the settings that reflects the openness of the characters and conversation, and the bright color palette keeps things from feeling to dour or depressing.
As I read the book, I quickly found that the overall tone of the dialogue was quite British; there are few but clear cues as to the setting. Sure enough, a little online research revealed it is, in fact, a UK book. Fortunately, it’s not so immersed in English culture that it isn’t accessible to just about anyone.
At the back of the book are a few text pages offering discussion points on consent and other related topics, including sexting and pornography. It also points to more resources for those with more questions. After all, there’s only so much the creators can cover in this important subject matter in a little more than 50 pages of a graphic novel.
At first, I thought the overall tone of the script was one-sided, but at that point, it was a discussion only among some female characters. My qualms faded quickly as a group of four boys was introduced to join and expand the conversation. The Wallises’ writing achieves a well-rounded, balanced and fair tone, and the boys bring the issue of homosexuality into the discussion as well, noting the sexual-assault dynamic isn’t limited to boy-on-girl scenarios. Most of the discussion revolves around male aggression and pressure toward females, but that’s understandable, as the issue manifests itself in that dynamic in the vast majority of cases. The writers don’t disregard or ignore other dynamics, but they do focus on the most common one.
The tone of the script in the early part of the book is straightforward, even bordering on the simple. As one gets further into the conversation, though, the dialogue gets more blunt, more adult. The writers ease us into the uncomfortable conversation, but eventually, it explores the sexual territory more overtly, even including a little profanity. That edge grants the teenage characters some more credibility, and the discussion seems more genuine as a result. 8/10
Note: This book is slated for release Nov. 21.
Follow Eye on Comics on Twitter.