There are a lot of comics these days aimed at new readers and young teen readers. Most tend to be genre comics in some fashion, which is all fine and good, but doesn’t address the dearth of serious, literate young adult comics. The comics of Kevin C. Pyle stand out as an exception to this rule, as he especially has a handle on the ways boredom, loneliness, and a quiet sense of desperation drive young people to do stupid things that get them into trouble. In his new book, Take What You Can Carry (a title that carries an interesting double-meaning), Pyle uses an especially thin, fragile line to tell stories about two young men separated by a gulf of thirty years. The links between the two seem tentative at first, until their connection becomes obvious. It’s a book about trying to feel alive in situations that are dulling and alienating, but beyond that, it’s about taking responsibility for one’s own happiness despite one’s circumstances.
One of the narratives begins in 1941, when the bombing of Pearl Harbor led to thousands of Japanese-American citizens being sent to internment camps and others were held in jail without charges. It is unquestionably one of the most shameful moments in modern American history. This narrative is told with no dialogue, and Pyle’s marvelous use of what looks like watercolors give these pages a sepia tone that mimic both an old photo album as well as certain kinds of Japanese paintings. Following a particular boy whose father is dragged away by the authorities, it details the austerity and adversity that his family deals with but also notes the breakdown of the traditional family structure. Order and law become less important for the young man than stealing raw supplies to make particular sorts of wood carvings that he loves. The young man steals wood for an old man who carves these beautiful objects until the old man’s tools are confiscated by the US military, under a ban against all “luxury” items and tools. The climax of this story sees the young man get caught.
The other narrative takes place in 1978, as teenager Kyle moves into a new neighborhood and immediately feels that he has to prove himself in order to make friends. He and his friends engage in an escalating series of pranks and risky behavior (mimicking the behavior of the boys from the 1940s, though under far different circumstances) until Kyle shoplifts for the first time. Pyle cleverly takes us through the psychology of shoplifting without commenting on it directly, but it’s all quite clear in the text. Shoplifting is never about about the object but rather about the thrill. It’s a direct test of a societal boundary, and shoplifters tend to keep doing it until they are caught. That’s because there’s a sense where they want to be caught. They want the risk to be real. Shoplifting frequently points to a general problem with authority figures (often one’s parents), and Pyle makes that connection clear in this book without making Kyle’s father a monstrous figure. Indeed, he’s something of a hard-ass, but he also clearly cares about his son without necessarily knowing how best to show it.
As Kyle is put to work by the owner of the grocery store he’s ripped off and is forced to come to terms with the human face of the impact of his crime, the connection between the two narratives starts to come into focus. Even as the narrative connection becomes obvious, Pyle still withholds the emotional connection until the very end, when Kyle is told a secret by the shop owner. The owner, after learning that the teen is worthy, bestows two important gifts upon Kyle in the form of this secret: mercy and empathy. The nature of each is made obvious by the text, but the shop owner bestows mercy because he receives it from someone else when he could have really been in trouble, and empathy because the shop owner understands restlessness and rootlessness. The impact of each gift has a powerful effect on Kyle, though Pyle relates this in his usual subtle and nuanced manner, revealing only that the boy is now interested in helping his father with a project around the house.
The blue wash in the 1970s segments give it that same sort of dreamy, flickering TV feel that Dan Clowes’s Ghost World possesses. It’s another shorthand for describing the past but a sharp counter to the sepia tones of the 1940s scenes. Pyle’s line is beautifully spare, letting the color tell much of the story, especially its emotional narrative. The way he connects the narratives is satisfying without being clever for its own sake. It’s a meaty story with recognizable characters who feel real, thrust into a situation that’s fairly low-stakes in terms of drama but still unpleasant enough to create dramatic stakes. Visually, it’s the most accomplished book of Pyle’s career, even as he exercises much restraint in his storytelling. This is the kind of book that should be taught in junior high school English classes, and I hope it catches on with librarians as well.