Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Review: Chiggers

Chiggers
Hope Larson
Aladdin MIX/Atheneum

I know that lots of folks question the wisdom in reviewing something based on how you would expect its intended audience to receive it. The dangers to this approach are clear: by taking it, one runs the risk of ignoring one's own responses, concentrating on the more dubious proposition of trying to guess how someone other than yourself would react to a book. It's not really a problem, of course, if the reviewer is part of the target audience, or if it's the kind of thing where marketing concepts like "target audience" are of reduced importance. I don't generally have to worry about this sort of thing for most of the comics I read, since I either belong to the target audience (eg, dudes who know who the Terrible Turpin is), or the author isn't really concerned with narrowcasting or the like (an approach I would associate with most of the stuff on this list).

It is something I have to think about when considering Chiggers, however. This is clearly a young adult title, presumably intended for an audience of teenage or preteen girls. That's obviously not me. Furthermore, I don't have any great expertise as to what kinds of comics someone in this target audience would respond to. I could take the approach I've seen in most reviews of DC's Minx line or various shojo titles--just give my reaction to it, ignoring any consideration of who it's intended for. I'd do that if I could, but I'm not sure that my brain works that way. From the moment I picked up Chiggers all the way through the end, I couldn't help but think about how my understanding of the book would necessarily differ from that of the folks who will (hopefully) be buying it or checking it out from libraries.

Complicating all this were my high expectations for the book, given Hope Larson's reputation. If I had read any of her earlier work I probably would have approached Chiggers differently. In fact, I wish I had read some of her earlier work, since I found Larson to be a very talented cartoonist. I especially appreciated the ongoing symbolic content to the work, sort of like a low-key David B. Which is good, since a YA title probably doesn't need a full-force David B. type of approach. See, I'm still thinking about this in terms of target audience.

Despite this reviewer's cognitive shortcomings, I still found Chiggers to be quite enjoyable. Besides the aforementioned symbolic content, I also found Larson's linework and storytelling to be quite charming. The real strength, however, is in the character work. The various denizens of Larson's summer camp are all strongly-defined in every possible way--design, body language, dialogue, and motivation. It's strong enough work to warrant a comparison to Jaime Hernandez, which is about the highest compliment I can imagine for this sort of thing.

Of course, this being a YA title, the stakes all seem a bit mild to my jaundiced, adult eye. I'm not so old that I can't recall a time when the events at summer camp (or, in my case, the summer program for the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts) seemed like life-and-death propositions. But that was a long time ago. Larson's incredible execution overshadows this, however. And besides, I'm not the target audience, right? None of this seemed inappropriate or corny, and I'd imagine it's tougher than you'd think to navigate a path avoiding those pitfalls.

I certainly hope Chiggers does well, because it's kind of the ideal entry-level comic. One could envision a generation of young comics readers with incredibly high standards based on their experiences reading Chiggers. Then again, they might be disheartened to find that other YA offerings aren't nearly as strong. What's really important, however, is that Hope Larson has produced a book which one can enthusiastically recommend to young female readers to for years to come. It's a shame that there's nobody in my family in the correct age group for this book, because I'd love to give a copy as a gift. As for myself, I really need to read Larson's other books.

EDIT: Please note the comment from my brother, who actually does have a background on how young girls process visual culture. It's good to think about these things in a more academically rigorous way.

(Review based on an advance copy.)

5 comments:

Dick Hyacinth's Brother said...

Hi, Dick Hyacinth’s brother here. Usually I just read Dick’s blog, but I have something to add this time. I have a strong interest in gender boundaries in visual culture. I especially like Hope Larson’s work, not only because her work is very well rounded, but her work also interests me in relation to gender boundaries within comics. I think anyone would agree that comic readership has, after the fifties, become a boys club. Thankfully, girls are seeing a larger variety of options becoming available, most notably are the large amounts of manga imported today.

The question is why American cartoonists have failed at reaching girl readers. And the key word here is girl, I am not making an argument about the readership of women. I am talking about young girls. Why have girl readers taken so long to warm up to comics again? Romance comics of the fifties never made a full comeback after comics became dangerous. In my mind this is where comics stepped out of the gender boundary for girls. Danger is, after all, within the boy sexual-stereotype. More importantly I think that most comics made for girls are simply not made for girls.

One of the largest flops in toy history was a variation on Lego. Legos are based on building activities (yet another a boy stereotype). In an attempt to heighten the interest of Legos in girls, Pink Legos were introduced. Obviously it was not the color of the Legos that influenced the interest of the toy with girls, but the actual play activity of building. Needless to say, Pink Legos did not increase the amount of interest in Legos with girls.

Much like the Pink Lego, comics for boys colored pink for girls failed to knock down the gender barrier for girls in relation to comics. The whole design must to be changed. You cannot change a formula that works for Batman into a formula that works for Barbie. That is why cartoonists like Hope Larson excite me. Chiggers is a well designed book that successfully changes the formula enough to allow girls to feel comfortable enough to read the comic within their gender boundary.

Oh, while I’m here… “Dick” is a great nom de plume for my brother, and not because it fits into his gender stereotype.

Heidi M. said...

Hm, I played with Legos just because...well, I liked playing with Legos. I mean granted I'm some kind of mangirl, but I know some other girls who like Legos as well.

Anyway, I liked CHIGGERS, too!

Alicia said...

I liked Legos, but I hated those pink Legos... everything you could possibly build in that line was mind-numbingly boring.

Tucker Stone said...

I had the same reaction to you about Chiggers-it's good, yeah, it's all good, but it was like reading Are You There God It's Me Margaret, only mixed with Blankets and tolerance.

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