Under the Radar: Top Shelf Graphic Novels

James Bucky Carter, Ricki Ginsberg, Kaa Hinton-Johnson, Sean Kottke, and Jennifer Walsh

In this column, James Bucky Carter interviews fellow UTR team members Ricki Ginsberg, Kaa Hinton-Johnson, Sean Kottke, and Jennifer Walsh about two recent graphic novels from Top Shelf that feature compelling young adult characters. First up is Ludovic Debeurme’s Lucille, originally published in France in 2006 and which won the Angouleme Essential Award and the Rene Goscinny Prize. Lucille was released in English in 2011 and explores the lives of two teen lovers as they travel across Europe. But, are they traveling to run from their destinies, to change them, or to embrace them? What role does legacy play in young love and self-discovery? Nate Powell’s Any Empire, also published in 2011, is set in the United States, and, to quote the book’s back cover, forces a trio of teens to “confront the reality of their suburban power fantasies.”


lucille_cover_sm_lgBucky: Does Lucille explore aspects of adolescent life effectively?

Ricki: For me, this novel vividly captures raw emotion. My heart ached for Lucille and Arthur at several points in the story. When Arthur brings Lucille the croissant, I felt her anxiety as to whether or not she should accept it. Debeurme captures emotion in his drawings in a way that pulled me into the story. I read the entire novel in one sitting because I couldn’t bear to put these characters out of my mind. Arthur and Lucille have a sense of adventure that felt authentic to me.

Kaa: I felt the same way, Ricki. I couldn’t put it down, and when I did, when the book was over, I knew I had read something that I wouldn’t be able to dismiss. Lucille and Arthur haunted me. It was that part of adolescence that longs for love, place, and voice that moved me the most. As we all know, adolescence can be painful, and Debeurme depicts that well. I’ve never been able to “read” art; I am all about words, but I found myself seeing (and feeling) a great deal in Debeurme’s drawings.

Jennifer: Lucille explores aspects of adolescent life effectively and adroitly depicts some of the issues contemporary teens grapple with such as eating disorders, alcoholism, and OCD. All are presented within the context of two teens trying to find themselves. I am amazed that through such simple, colorless drawings Debeurme was able to convey so much raw emotion. As Kaa and Ricki have said, this was a book that begged for a one-sitting read and moved the reader quickly through the tragedies (and triumphs) of Lucille and Arthur.

Bucky: School is largely missing as a setting in this novel. What do you make of this, and do you find it problematic?

Ricki: While I noted this, I wondered if much of the novel could have taken place during a break from school. As Lucille was in the hospital for one point, I thought she might have had a leave of absence. I did not find the lack of a school setting to be a plot hole.

Kaa: I wondered if school was absent because in many ways school can be ill-equipped to address the issues depicted in the novel. Also, Arthur and Lucille might be invisible.

Sean: Kaa, you are absolutely right about Arthur and Lucille being invisible. In a literal sense, Lucille’s hospitalization and Arthur’s work on his father’s boat keep them physically removed from the school setting, but in a figurative sense, the world is likely invisible to them, given their positions at the margins of society. Ricki’s invocation of Wintergirls in a later response in this column inspired my thinking on this point. As depicted in that novel, anorexia is all-consuming (no pun intended). The obsession with total control of calorie intake, expenditure and weight loss takes over Lia’s consciousness (and by extension, Lucille’s), to the point that the rest of the physical and social world disappears. The minimalism of Debeurme’s drawings – both the simple rendering of characters and severe lack of detail in settings – provides a stark visualization of this self-absorption. The same could be said for Arthur, whose life is all-consumed by a family legacy in the fishing industry, to the extent that upon his father’s death, he loses his given name to inherit the family name of Vladimir. Until he and Lucille can break away, the rest of the world may as well not exist to them – or with them.

Jennifer: Not only is school ill-equipped to handle the kinds of issues in the novel, but these issues transcend school, in a way. When a student is confined by some of the experiences Lucille and Arthur endure, school becomes the background and not the foreground, as Sean mentioned. I find it totally realistic that school no longer plays a part in the lives of these two characters, because they have so much else on their plates to begin with. The fact that Lucille is still capable of learning love (with Arthur) and empathy (with Maud) is school in itself.

Bucky: Regarding elements and principles of design (see http://www.graphicdesignbasics.com/principles-of-design and http://www.johnlovett.com/test.htm), I claim that Lucille is a master study in line and economy. Do you agree or disagree, and how so? Are there other elements or principles of design that you feel Debeurme uses to tell the story?

Kaa: I wish I knew more about this. I marveled at how Debeurme could convey so much with such deceptively simple drawings.

Jennifer: Debeurme’s use of line and economy takes the background so that the emotions of the characters can become characters in themselves. This can be seen through the drawing of the disproportionately large heads on the characters. Where does emotion mainly take place? The head. However, the balance he seems to achieve in the thin line drawings of the settings allow the reader to focus on the internal struggles of the characters, which are at the center of the novel.

Bucky: While experiencing Lucille and Arthur’s romance/adventure, I thought to myself, I’m sort of seeing a European version of “Jack and Diane” or Billy Joe and Bobby Sue in the song “Take the Money and Run.” Would you label such a characterization as accurate or inaccurate, and why?

Sean: I think the comparison is accurate, but the text represents more of a contemporary French take on an older European narrative trope that runs even deeper in literature and pop culture than these classic American songs. In Lucille, I see a classic “love on the run” narrative, in which a madly in love couple hits the road (usually heading south; in this case, Italy), attempting to escape the roles and social conventions that constrain them. Such stories can be tragic (ex. the “star-crossed lovers” of Romeo and Juliet or Elvira Madigan) or comic (ex. the Greenworld comedy of As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream), depending on the resolution of the romantic relationship between the protagonists. The French have made a lot of classic movies in this vein (see, for example, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Pierrot le Fou, as well as Jonathan Demme’s American take, Something Wild), so it’s not too surprising that Debeurme mines this narrative vein for Lucille. What’s fresh and interesting to me is how timelessly Debeurme develops the story through the nearly minimalist rendering of the images, which gives few hints as to a specific time period, yet weaves a clearly contemporary story that feels right at home next to the latest YA realistic fiction.

Jennifer: This definitely strikes me as a “star crossed lovers” novel. I knew as soon as they ran off together that it would end tragically, similarly to Romeo and Juliet. There was so much baggage that they both carried, that it would be difficult for them to make it far.

Bucky: What textual connections did you make while reading Lucille? What do you think it would pair well with if taught?

Sean: In addition to the texts mentioned in response to the previous question, there are a lot of great YA “love on the run” titles that would pair well with LucilleChopsticks, by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral, is a multimedia scrapbook that tells the story of a romance through photographs, snatches of text messages, YouTube videos and ephemera like concert programs, ticket stubs and school letters. Like Lucille, much of the story is subtly implied through the juxtaposition of the simplest of images and minimal text. I can envision rich over what readers infer in the two books. John Green’s latest novel, The Fault in Our Stars, has a similar narrative structure, and all three books would be great core texts for a study of adolescents’ responses to extreme stresses both external (ex. the suicide of Arthur’s father in Lucille, the pressure on artistic prodigies to perform in Chopsticks) and internal (ex. cancer in The Fault in Our Stars, anorexia in Lucille).

Ricki: I could also see it being paired with Julie Halpern’s Don’t Stop Now, both in the emotions and insecurities of the characters and the “love on the run” aspect that Sean noted. Additionally, I would love to pair it with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls. I know this is an obvious connection with the topic of anorexia, but it would be fascinating to examine how the main characters in both novels struggle with the disorder. It would be interesting to examine the parallels between the characters.

Jennifer: I agree that Wintergirls would be a great pairing, and I don’t think it’s that obvious when we look at the different ways the issues are handled in each novel. Additionally, I think one could pair this text with Julie Halpern’s By The Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead to look at the emotional struggles that female characters may have regarding their bodies. While Halpern’s book is largely about bullying and planned suicide, I think the crux of so much of these novels is media influence on how females think their bodies should look.

Bucky: The novel ends by suggesting that Debeurme will continue the story. What do you think we will see in the early pages of the planned sequel?

Kaa: I was surprised that Lucille’s mother and Arthur seemed to respond to Lucille’s illness in a passive way. I’m not sure what I expected them to do, but I wondered about Lucille’s mother’s response. Since the book ends with a mirror image of the two of them, I’d hope that Debeurme deals more with the mother-daughter relationship. The sequel is titled Renee. This makes me wonder if it will explore Arthur’s family.

Jennifer: I am hoping that the glasses become a larger metaphor for the fact that the eyes of both women (Lucille and her mother) were opened in Lucille’s absence. I would like to see Lucille return with a better sense of herself. Since she said in the second to last section: “And I, Who am I? If you can’t see me?”I would like to see Lucille return with a renewed self-confidence that she can be loved by both the opposite sex and her own parent.


any_empire_cover_sm_lgBucky: What is your take on how Any Empire handles the culture of violence in American society?

Sean: Thinking about Any Empire in the context of this question inspires a lot of thoughts that connect with other questions posed here, and will, with the reader’s indulgence, necessitate some dipping into memoir as warrant for my claims. The violence in the lives, imaginations and pop cultural passions of the young adults in Any Empire does reflect a violent American culture, but I see the book’s take on violence less as a condemnation of a dysfunctional American culture than as a subtle exploration of the role of violence within young adolescents’ development. As such, Any Empire serves as a fantastic text for facilitating a rich discussion on the functions and attractions of violent entertainment, an important conversation for fostering critical media literacy skills.

The vicarious experience of violence, whether fictional or real, can either be cathartic or excitatory, depending on the larger context. What it cannot be – and if we’re serious about engaging the hearts and minds of all readers, should not be – is avoided. Early on, Lee’s parents watch him playing alone on a swing-set. His mother asks, “Should we worry?” to which his father replies, “Naw, boys just have this phase, I guess … maybe.” Lee’s quiet, solitary play masks a rich internal life, in which virtually every bit of furniture and architecture becomes an exotic setting for the violent fantasies he plays out with characters from his favorite narratives. Purdy’s fantasy life, to which we are not given as much access, likely has a similar flavor, but there is real physical violence enacted upon him by a bullying older brother and verbal violence enacted upon him by rabid Little League parents. It’s one thing for Lee to imagine the bloodless violence of a GI Joe comic come to life, but quite another when he’s confronted with the bloody reality of Purdy’s turtle killings and the bloody realism of Platoon at Purdy’s house. Lee and Purdy drift apart as Lee appears to become progressively disturbed by the real violence in Purdy’s world and worldview.

Bucky: It sounds like you have made a personal connection to this text, Sean. Tell us more.

Sean: Following the trajectory of Lee and Purdy’s relationship brings to mind my own relationship with Artie, a childhood friend and fellow son of a Vietnam-era veteran. Artie and I spent our early adolescence bonding over James Bond, Star Wars, Atari, Dungeons and Dragons, elaborate war games with our vast collections of HO scale army men, and trips to the local Army surplus store (which really did sell Nazi flags, like the store depicted in Any Empire). We reveled in violent texts, while simultaneously absorbing contradictory messages about such texts from our fathers, both Vietnam-era veterans with drastically different visions for our futures. My father was a pacifist who emphasized well-rounded academic achievement as the best hope for boys in my generation to maximize their future career opportunities and not become casualties of war; he didn’t care for our violent tastes, yet indulged us as long as it was clear that we could recognize the line separating real and fantasy violence. Artie’s father, on the other hand, was a Great Santini-like figure, constantly promoting the ideal that “real men” were forged by military service and the ordeals of war; he never spared an opportunity to share Army stories – the more graphic the better – or tell us how our future superior officers would react to our unacceptably immature preadolescent behaviors. That all-important line between fantasy and reality was never quite so clear with Artie’s dad. Once we entered high school, Artie and I grew apart, as our interests diverged and our circles of friends diversified. I also found Artie’s enthusiasm for the arcana of weaponry and martial arts – as well as his father’s military rhetoric – increasingly off-putting, coincidentally around the time that Platoon was released and the realities of what actually happened in the Vietnam War were becoming clearer to those of us raised in its shadow. I lost touch with Artie after he changed high schools, but much like Lee felt with Purdy, I never lost a sense of unease that instead of experiencing catharsis from all of the violent texts we had shared, a disturbing potential for actual violence was building up inside Artie.

To my knowledge, that never happened, although once in college, a mutual friend told me that Artie had joined the Army and was seriously injured in combat, much like Purdy. My main point in sharing this anecdote is to lend support to a reading of Any Empire’s meditation on the functions and effects of violent narratives on young adult minds as a subtly realistic one that resists simple equations between vicarious and enacted violence. My secondary point is to answer the questions posted by Lee’s parents while observing their son. It may be a phase, but the adults bear some responsibility to ensure that young adults recognize the boundaries between play and real life, a discussion that this book would serve as a great vehicle to facilitate. For further perspective on this issue, see Harold Schechter’s fantastic Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment.

Jennifer: I agree with Sean that this novel explores the violence inherent in young adults’ lives. My own students (7th and 8th graders) have all regaled me with tales of what I know to be “ultra violent” movies they’ve seen and play violent video games that simply weren’t around when I was their age. It seems the current teens are more inured to death than any other generation before them without ever having been a participant in an actual war. Any Empire shows how this constant barrage of media and “play” have fleshed themselves out in our culture. I also agree with Sean in that how a parent reacts to war play, which is a typical pre-adolescent behavior, influences how the child deals with it. I think this aspect of the novel would truly garner great discussion in classes.

BuckyA review from The Comics Journal mentions that “Fiction plays a large part not only in the lives of these characters, such that other texts in the novel become signified meta-narratives.” Agree? Disagree?

Jennifer: I noticed right away that Sarah almost always wore a shirt that said “I read 100 books.” Obviously, her reading was much more pacifistic than what the boys were reading. It makes me wonder if Lee, with his violent daydreams, is much different than the boys who were actually torturing turtles? Does what we read determine who we become? I do think the fiction becomes a meta-narrative in this graphic novel, but it also sets up the themes of war, courage and violence that are scattered throughout the text.

BuckyAnother review mentions the schism between the surreal and the factual regarding U.S. military activities and how one might read the book. What was your interpretation of the tanks and soldiers moving through the town toward the end of the novel?

Jennifer: When the tanks moved through the town at the end of the novel, I did find it somewhat surreal, but I saw it as a metaphor for how close war can actually come to us without realizing the violence is on our own back steps. There was a point where it seemed that America was turning on its own citizens in some sort of dystopian sub-plot. It made it read more like an “anti-government” novel.

Bucky: Are there issues related to bullying in this novel? If so, how do they play out, and do they accurately reflect what we know about this dynamic?

Jennifer: Any time we see the lines “…we’re in a gang…if you wanna join…you have to kill something,” it makes me think of bullying. It was interesting to see that Lee never really played into that, but rather went on doing his own thing. However, when insults from parents and kids were hurled at Purdy during a baseball game, I found that to be the most detrimental kind of bullying, often the kind we unfortunately see today. I see this as very accurate for our current society, but also as a trajectory for Purdy, who goes straight into the military. By no means was that the only factor contributing to his future path, but I saw it as pivotal.

Bucky: I despise the term “nonlinear” when used to describe comics narratives. I prefer “multi-linear” because a narrative always has its own beginning, middle, and end, even if the events in the narrative are shared “out of order.” What effect did Powell’s multi-linear style have on your reading of the novel, if any?

Ricki: I found this graphic novel to be more authentic than many of the more linear stories that I’ve read. Powell incorporates a variety of plots and scenes that may seem disjointed to some readers, but they all work together beautifully. The intricate plot feels a bit like a magical explosion of ideas with flashbacks and flashforwards. Our minds do not work in a linear fashion, and this makes the book all the more real. Sarah’s eyes brim with tears as she holds injured turtles and demands justice, and years later, she works for child protective services, fighting to support the innocent. By placing these events “out of order,” I understood Sarah’s thoughts, actions, and purpose better than I would with any linear story. This is not a simple story about a girl’s quest to seek justice for turtles or a boy’s desire to discover his place in the world. Powell is telling us much more, relaying messages about violence, power, betrayal, and courage. All of the characters are attempting to find themselves amidst the blur of their imaginations, and the sequencing is very intentional to maximize the meaning of this story.

Jennifer: I actually found it difficult to follow, truth be told. Between the flashbacks, present day and daydreams, it was hard to determine which was which. I typically enjoy flashbacks in graphic novels. Like Ricki, I thought the message about violence and power came through clearly, but my road was a bit rockier along the way. I did feel that the end tied up all of the stories and I enjoyed the recursive process Powell used to get there, but I know that my own middle schoolers would definitely have difficulty parsing out the plot line. But, then, I don’t think that’s the demographic Powell had in mind with this book.

Bucky: Thank you for your responses, team! Readers, we hope this interaction piqued your interest in these two fine texts from independent publisher Top Shelf. Check in with ALAN in a few more months for another Under The Radar column.

For more TopShelf comics, visit their website.