When you read the graphic memoir Honor Girl, you step into a world where Civil War reenactments, the Backstreet Boys, gunslinging, and lunchtime sex polls are your daily concerns. Sound familiar? Of course not. This is Maggie Thrash’s story, not yours.
It’s the year 2000, and Thrash is 15. She’s spending yet another summer at Camp Bellflower, a Christian girls' camp in Kentucky that both her mother and grandmother attended as teens. The camp is steeped in Southern tradition and strict social structure—all the campers wear uniforms, they pray constantly, and each year one especially obedient, God-fearing camper is appointed the coveted, but laughable, title “Honor Girl.” In general no one breaks any rules, not even to buy a Coke from the counselors’ vending machine. So when Thrash develops a crush on Erin—a 19-year-old female counselor—the veil of upright, church-going heteronormativity that the camp prides itself on is torn, and Maggie becomes an awkward, tongue-tied, somnambulating version of herself.
Thrash, a staff writer for Rookie Magazine, is clearly no SVA graduate. But that’s not a dig on her drawing skills. It is just to say that whether she lacks or doesn’t give a crap about slick art-school-style drafting techniques, she’s really a storyteller, and a strong one. Thrash certainly has drawing skills, but they’re her own, and they’re specifically savvy for the story she is telling. Her bare-bones line drawings colored with watercolor pencils seem to be channeled directly from her 15-year-old self. The drawings have the rawness and bright-eyed directness of the teenager depicted in them, who can’t hide behind a catalog of romantic experience and mastery. This is part of the brilliance of the comic medium itself—the way images work in concert with the literal to tell a deeper, much richer story—and Thrash really hits the mark with it. The drawings are so believably vulnerable, which is maybe why her story feels so devastating.
Counselor Erin is a cool, confident, astronomy major from Boulder, Colorado. She plays guitar, and is good at math. She knows her way amongst the stars. Conversely, Maggie sleepwalks outside at night—subconsciously desiring to join Erin’s world of stars and astronomy, but knows nothing about the math of it, or how to orient herself. Erin looms as the potential guide for Maggie on her attempted forays into the starry night of youth and love. But even though the two girls are clearly drawn to each other, Erin won’t play the role of mentor to Maggie’s child seeker.
Sadly, Erin and Maggie never even kiss. Not even when they meet again two years after Camp Bellflower, when Maggie is nearly 18, which is where the story ends. Maggie and Erin spend the day together and repeat their pattern of lapsed moments and missed intimacies. Maggie still hasn’t yet discovered the ways in which love is a partnership, and remains passive and timid, letting moments with Erin disappear before they even happen. After Erin drops her off, Maggie sulks at a bar somewhere in New Mexico, drinking Shirley Temples, waiting and hoping for Erin to come back for her. But she doesn’t.
“Not every moment has to happen,” she says to justify her passivity.
Honor Girl doesn’t just hand your heart to you on a platter. It makes you laugh, uncomfortably at times, and there are even a few empowering moments for our love-sick teen protagonist. Namely, Maggie’s brief stint as a drag performer, embodying Kevin Richardson of the Backstreet Boys, and achieving her Distinguished Expert certification from the NRA, by accident no less. Make no mistake, the passive devastation of this story is absolutely gut-wrenching, so be prepared to read the book in a safe space where you can moan and curse out loud like I did. However, unlike so many trite stories of love, this one stands out as a truer, more likely scenario. If you don’t let people know that they are wanted, they will go away. Love relationships are fragile opportunities. They need care and attention. They need those moments to happen.
Monica McKelvey Johnson is a writer, comic artist, and sitcom devotee living in Brooklyn, NY. She writes a monthly series for The Rumpus called Fresh Comics, publishes comics as Wool & Brick Press, and is co-curating an exhibition in 2016 for the Interference Archive called Our Comics, Ourselves: Identity, Expression and Representation in Comic Art. You can find her on Twitter @woolandbrick.