Melissa Mendes has been producing minicomics about her quasi-autobiographical character Freddy for some time, and now, thanks to a Xeric grant, she’s collected them into a book. Freddy Stories is ideally designed and sequenced to match the simple appeal of the slightly androgynous young girl through stories that continue to expand and expound upon her world. Mendes’s adviser at the Center for Cartoon Studies was Tom Hart, and as I’ve noted before his influence is often felt not so much in terms of technique or subject matter, but rather in the way he inspires students to feel total confidence in their drawing styles. Figuring out how best to bring images to life on the page in the way you want to see them is key for a young artist, and Mendes’s simple, sketchy, cartoony line is the perfect means to tell the stories about a tomboyish young girl, her family, and her environment. The expressiveness of her line and the fluidity of motion and panel-to-panel transitions mark an artist who is comfortable as a storyteller.
Mendes lists John Stanley and Irving Tripp’s Little Lulu as an influence, and that’s clear in terms of the forcefulness of Freddy’s personality and her vivid imagination. There’s a bit of Lynda Barry to be found here as well, in her depictions of unusual family circumstances and children who don’t fit a particular mold. A big part of Mendes’s mission is to create a comic that a child can read and enjoy without much difficulty. Thus, her character designs are simple and easy to process. Freddy is shown wearing a hoodie (with her hair sticking out of the front at all times), shorts, and a pair of sneakers. Her dog Frank is a pile of thick, scribbly black lines–a perfect delight in terms of both economy and visual impact.
Using a 2 x 3 grid on every page, as well as freehand panel borders (a touch that makes it clear that every line on the page comes from the same hand), Mendes starts the book with a series of one- or two-page anecdotes starring Freddy. Mendes never introduces an overarching narrative explaining Freddy’s relationships to everyone else or her life circumstances; instead, these details emerge naturally from the stories themselves. For example, her boyish looks and garb become an issue when kids in school tease her about them (this is when the reader learns definitively that Freddy is a girl, not a boy). This situation amusingly comes to a head when she walks into a girl’s bathroom, is met with a shocked expression, and yells in reply, “I’M A GIRL!”
As the story unfolds, Freddy negotiates her world with a sense of wonder and adventure. She has an unyielding sense of fairness, as when she confronts an older teenage boy after seeing him steal a doll from a young child at a fair. She is tomboy-tough (and occasionally abrasive) in the kinds of games she likes to play and in the way she’s so comfortable hanging around older men, but she’s also tender and loving. The end of the aforementioned strip about the fair sees her in the arms of her mother, falling asleep with a contented smile.
The final story in the book, “Aunt Maria”, is a 24-page recapitulation of all that proceeds it. Under protest, Freddy has to spend a few summer weeks alone at her aunt’s house. Despite her initial unhappiness in the country, Freddy slowly learns to navigate this environment as well. There are some really lovely pages of art here as Freddy walks through a forest, with Mendes pulling off a scribbly but densely rendered series of drawings of trees. The final image of Freddy back at home, with a box of leaves and twigs she had collected on her trip, shows her with the slightest of smiles on her face.
Freddy Stories is not just promising student work but a lovely book that’s warm without being treacly. Mendes manages this through storytelling restraint, simplicity of design, and an eye for the sort of detail that children in particular might find interesting. I think if she continues to pare down her imagery—as John Porcellino does—her art will become even more striking. Mendes mostly keeps things simple, but she still over-renders some drawings, and makes unfortunate choices in others (like drawing a black table with a person in black clothing sitting behind it–the resulting image is pretty much a blob). This is an impressive debut and a rare feat in that it provides stories about children that both children and adults might both enjoy in equal measure.