I was intrigued when I heard that memoir cartoonist MariNaomi was going to be writing a series of young adult comics. In her many autobiographical comics, it's seemed like she labored to create as many different kinds of talking heads scenes as possible. That's because her comics are mostly about relationships and interactions, so there's very little action and a great deal of slowly revealed, painful emotional truths being put on display. She's developed a variety of techniques to keep the reader's eye interested and active on her pages, from near-abstractions of images, to greatly varying line weights, to extensive use of negative space, spotting blacks and/or gray wash, to using a variety of different fonts for characters and many other layout innovations. As a result of this toolbox she's been developing over time, her new book, Losing the Girl, is a success from top to bottom; she establishes and expands upon the characteristics and narrative goals of each of the primary four protagonists primarily from a visual standpoint.
Conflicts are created through a deft use of making each character's narrative wants clash with another's in a particular way, and everything is tied around a central premise: in a small town, four teens peripherally deal with the disappearance of one of their classmates as they negotiate their own desires, fears, and emotions. That disappearance may have something to do with alien abductions, a trope that's tied to what each character really wants. The comic is also about friendship, especially between women, and the ways that it can become unraveled. Converting her own experiences into a narrative structure clearly gave MariNaomi a great deal of insight on how to craft that kind of narrative for her characters.
That said, the true success of the book is that none of the characters feel formulaic, placed in the book in order to lay narrative pipe, or become an easily understandable narrative shortcut for the reader. Indeed, even characters who appear shallow at first evince surprising depth and self-awareness, especially as each one has to endure their own share of hardship and difficulty.
Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, and each chapter uses a different visual style and storytelling approach as well. It begins with an African-American teen named Nigel and his crush on his classmate Emily. Nigel uses humor to mask his pain not just over his parents' divorce but over the way they put him in the middle of their conflict. Just when it appears that he might be winning Emily's favor, he learns that he might have to move away for a while, which makes it easy for her to simply think of him as a friend. Nigel's chapter features Dutch angles that often carve up the page into triangular panels, a thin line weight, and a light but extensive gray wash. There's something almost abstract in Nigel's character design, as his long, natural hair often is rendered as a set of protuberances emerging from his head. It's a funny image, but Nigel is less sloppy than he is a minimalist. His room is clean, he's a sharp dresser, but MariNaomi makes it plain that he's a blank canvas in many ways.
Emily's chapter is next, and it's by far the longest in the book. In many respects, she's the primary protagonist in this volume; the other characters essentially react to her. She's an Asian-American character, although I wouldn't say that race is an especially important narrative component in the book. It's more of a reflection of the real world than a calculated plot point. Visually speaking, MariNaomi uses a familiar style from her earlier days, like in her early sex & relationship memoir, Kiss and Tell. There's lots of spotted blacks, a more standard panel layout, and starker contrasts. Everything is literally either black or white; there's almost no use of a gray wash here. It makes sense, since the chapter concerns her dream boy Brett and how she managed to successfully pursue him. Things don't start to get a bit gray and the visual approach doesn't start to really vary much until she learns that she's pregnant. MariNaomi manages to pull off the difficulty of handling that situation with a straightforward delicateness, subtly changing styles without beating the reader over the head with her approach. It's subtle and restrained, thanks to her more stripped-down drawing style that deliberately lacks the kind of earthy warmth present in her bolder, older approach.
Brett looks like a typical jock, but he's actually a sensitive artist who comes from a poor background, with mental illness prevalent in his family. The gray wash used throughout his chapter is designed to make his every moment seem emotional and dramatic, as he has to deal with his unrequited love continuing to reject him and then finally gets to see Emily for the first time in weeks. So many of the characters in the book are magnets, only some have polarities that repel each other. Finally, there's Paula, who is often poorly treated by her best friend Emily. This chapter uses an open-page layout that eschews a rigid narrative sequence. Instead, there's a flow from image to image, as MariNaomi uses an extremely fine line and drops out tremendous amounts of detail, a style she used extensively in books like Dragon's Breath and I Thought YOU Hated Me!. There's a particularly masterful sequence where she decides to break off her friendship with Emily, only she lies about the reasons why, where the word GUILT is literally crowning her. Narratively, this chapter ties together a number of emotional loose ends, as we get to understand a character with complex feelings who was mostly ignored by others, even as she distanced herself from her abusive ex-boyfriend.
Returning to Nigel in the final chapter, some paranormal elements start to emerge. Several people seem to have spotted the missing girl, only she's now somehow homeless and middle-aged. The characters try to create meaningful connections, and a selfless act by Nigel leaves the book, the first of a planned trilogy, on a hopeful note. There are many familiar elements of teen romance here, to be sure, but MariNaomi approaches with a level of sophistication and humanity that's rare for any story of this kind.