Is it okay for a comic book to be readable and not much more? Sure. As with any other art form, there’s a big fat bell curve that describes quality, with some garbage and some cream at opposite ends, and a bunch of stuff in the middle that’s fine. Cynthia Copeland’s Cub is somewhere in that middle. Back in 2013, I read her Good Riddance: An Illustrated Memoir of Divorce and thought something similar. Copeland is best known as the author of books about kids and dogs and cats that are kind of sunshine-infused, the sort of thing you might give someone if you didn’t know them very well. Cub is a good bit better than that. It’s an autobiographical story about her middle school experience in the 1970s and how she became a reporter, a job she then did for years.
There’s sort of a double meaning to the title, in that it refers to the term for a young reporter and seems to describe Cindy at the same time, a young animal finding her way in the world. Fauna metaphors run throughout the book, with Copeland talking about the predators (cool kids) and prey (not so cool kids) in middle school, as well as the evasive and defensive maneuvers available to the latter. A bear cub starts out as prey and ends up perfectly able to defend itself. Ditto Cindy. It’s not the most complex analogy, but it seems to be there to give the book a bit more shape. On the other hand, the mean girl stuff tends to be the least interesting part of the book, even though it’s the most relatable. Few kids grow up to be reporters; most have a pretty shitty time in middle school. Maybe it’s the least interesting because it’s such a common experience, or maybe it’s just that Copeland doesn’t bring anything all that new to it. Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham’s Real Friends and Best Friends have covered the territory pretty extensively, for example. The TV show Freaks and Geeks managed to find reliably interesting veins to mine, things that were unexpectedly kind or cruel, dumb or awkward, rather than the same old “some kids are mean and maybe it’s because they’re insecure but really you should just stand up and be yourself.” That’s still good advice, but it doesn’t make for the most interesting narrative.
The parts where Cindy hangs out with local reporter Leslie Jacobs and learns how reporting works are better, perhaps because they deal in specifics (school board meetings, baking contests, the mechanics of putting together a story) more than generalities, much like a well-reported story. The growing feminism and political awareness Cindy shows are probably accurately mild for a story about a young woman coming out of her shell, but much of the book is on the bland side, with messier details smoothed out. The art feels this way, too. If you’re not looking at Pham’s work or Raina Telgemeier’s (two artists who would seem to make obvious points of comparison due to the subject matter of their books), it might seem similar to Copeland’s, but crack one of those books and you’ll see they put a lot more in. Copeland’s characters are, well, cartoony, with oval, flat faces, round eyes, eyebrows that feel like an afterthought, and hair that looks like the kind Cathy Guisewhite draws. The word balloons feel like they get a bit too much real estate, although there’s not that much dialogue. You might think that Copeland is drawing in a childlike style on purpose, to mirror the ages of her characters and her own work as a young woman, but if you go look at her art for her other books, it’s done in the same simplified style. Perhaps the images are so simple that the text has to do a bit more lifting, explaining details with arrows pointing to them because otherwise we might not notice them.
Maybe I’m being unkind. There are plenty of bits in the story that feel drawn from life, like Cindy’s experience with her first boyfriend, Kevin, which mostly consists of building a fort and hanging out in it. They break up when she’s baited by the mean girls into saying “I don’t even like him” while he’s within earshot. It’s one of the two most dramatic parts of the story, and it feels more real because it gives the character of Cindy a flaw other than shyness. The other dramatic moment comes when, while attending a school board meeting, she notices a budget disparity and questions it in public, sparking a reaction from the parents and community members also at the meeting. This one doesn’t have anything to do with flaws--instead, it’s more of a heroic/growth moment; it’s just actually compelling. Again, both of these moments stand out because they’re not part of the experience of most people reading the book. It’s not that comics aren’t good at conveying what we have in common, but, like other literature, they do so better when they use experiences that we don’t all have in our memories to make us see our shared reactions and emotions. When Cub focuses on those moments, it pulls you in and becomes more than merely readable. Unfortunately, they’re not a majority of the book.