Confronting Uncertain Worlds: Comics with Young Female Protagonists

Though absent from stores, young adults do punctuate some of today’s most popular comic book stories. And Westerfeld and Puvilland have certainly given themselves plenty of plot lines to untangle. Other trips are just as fleetingly enchanting: an octopus-like creature caught in an existential stare-down with its own reflection, gangly catacomb dwellers discussing a new discovery, an earthly looking Inuit family traveling through the snow. OCTOBER 27, 2017
ONCE REBUKED FOR seducing innocent young minds, mainstream comic books are now comfortably established as a medium for the middle-aged. But are comics about young adults necessarily for young adults? So, if you do find yourself standing next to a 13-year-old in a comic book store, there is a strong chance that that young adult will be a female fan. Ideally, these glimpses of other worlds result in readers looking anew at their own. If you subtract the fantastical elements, the devastated setting that Addison inhabits is reminiscent of the towns and cities recently ravaged by hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes. Perhaps this is the trap that del Duca and Seaton have set for themselves with the premise. Colorist Hilary Sycamore also deserves ample praise (at times, the look of Spill Zone reminded me of the work of Paul Pope and, sure enough, Sycamore has worked on some of Pope’s recent comics). Anderson and Marissa Meyer who, as of late, have taken a break from prose to produce comics. As in most good YA fiction, the parental figures in Afar are quickly done away with so that the young protagonists can get on with their adventure. Dotted with colorful language and intense imagery, it is decidedly YA. The medium has matured along with its fans and, surely, despite some commentators bemoaning the puerile superhero antics that saturate pop culture, this has led to more widespread respect for comics. It is not necessarily sluggish, as within the first few pages, Boetema — Bo for short — is already experiencing her newfound powers. Westerfeld does not overburden the story with unnecessary dialogue or narration. Po’Town), New York, a city ravaged by a mysterious event. These interludes take up three panels, two panels, and one panel respectively, but they capture the imagination and linger long after one turns the page. Is anything gained by labeling them as YA comics? Inotu is still nominally under threat from the bodyguard, but the stakes don’t feel all that intense. Like other YA fiction focused more on building the foundation for a series rather than telling a complete story in one volume, Spill Zone might make readers impatient by not offering enough resolution. Her first journey takes her to an undersea world where she inhabits the consciousness of an ugly amphibious creature that longs to be a majestic whale. Earlier this century, Marvel and DC Comics made overt attempts to do just that. Addison and Lexa’s parents succumbed to the mysterious event that devastated their city. Fearing for her brother’s safety, Bo decides that they should travel to Yopan, a bustling and crowded city where they can take refuge. Kit Seaton, artist. G. The connection between Lexa and her doll is clearly significant to unraveling the secrets of Po’Town, and the final panels of this first volume make it clear that whatever is possessing Vespertine is linked to the origins of the spill. While Bo is committed to her work as a scribe, she is preoccupied with Maltura. Marvel’s Tsunami imprint from the early 2000s and the DC’s Minx line from the late 2000s were relatively short-lived, however. Make no mistake, though, about the intended audience for Westerfeld and Puvilland’s action-filled horror comic. Kit Seaton, artist. “We all read for entertainment, no matter how old we are,” Cory Doctorow claims in a blog post outlining his rationale for writing YA, “but kids also read to find out how the world works.” The danger buried in that assumption is that, by trying too hard, a work of YA fiction can become didactic, trite, and all too certain of what it’s trying to say. Spill Zone, too, promises additional volumes. This task is tied up in geopolitical intrigue, as readers discover that a rural area in North Korea suffered an event analogous to the Po’Town disaster. The most captivating scenes in the book are those that involve Bo’s otherworldly trips. It’s just that del Duca and Seaton have created a world that takes some getting used to. Two comics released within the last year challenge this prevailing wisdom. Published by Image Comics, Afar was intended to be a limited series, but, as del Duca describes in an interview, she became convinced early on that it would work better as an original graphic novel where readers could dive in all at once rather than take in the story bit by bit via individual issues. ¤
Jens Lloyd is a PhD candidate in the English Department at UC Irvine. Puvilland, an animator for DreamWorks, has a rough, kinetic style that brings to life the rough, kinetic world of Spill Zone. But these are uncertain domains populated by young adult protagonists who are driven by the ever-shifting circumstances of their lives to take responsibility for themselves and for others. Marvel (2014–present), depicting the origin story of a young American Muslim superhero, has gained substantial media attention and a loyal fan following. Addison’s efforts to make a life for her and her sister suggest that, in the wake of catastrophe, there is no getting back to normal. Alex Puvilland, artist; Hilary Sycamore, colorist. Though certainly provocative, the intrigue only adds another layer to a story that is chock-full of mystery. The second and third chapters of Afar interweave Bo’s return trips to Maltura with the rest of Bo and Inotu’s adventure in Yopan. By taking the leap of residing with Addison and her sister on the edge of Po’Town, readers can appreciate how Spill Zone resonates with our increasingly catastrophe-prone world. Our protagonist, of course, routinely violates this restriction to take photos that fetch substantial sums in the underground art market. So, perhaps, like urban explorers touring a forbidden locale, readers need to dive into Spill Zone with the mentality that the adventure is the destination. The product of an all-female creative team, Afar — by artist-turned-writer Leila del Duca and web-comic artist Kit Seaton — is a slow-building but ultimately absorbing tale of a young woman, Boetema, gifted with the ability of astral projection. There is only the long, uneven process of adjustment, of finding a way to live within whatever new world the catastrophe has wrought. Also of note are the multiethnic cast and the meticulously varied character designs. Addison’s photography puts in her contact with an art buyer who offers Addison a lucrative assignment to retrieve an artifact from the zone. Readers will quickly notice and appreciate the distinctive desert setting that, although inspired by North Africa and the Middle East, is deliberately not located on our planet. While Spill Zone draws from horror to generate its story elements, Afar follows the astral projections of Bo into the realm of fantasy. I found Bo’s trips to Maltura to be more suspenseful than the lives she and her brother lead in Yopan. T. Taking leaps into new worlds is a fair description of Bo’s powers in Afar. Seaton’s knack for composing dramatic perspectives is on full display as the siblings arrive in their new city. What, if anything, young adult readers choose to learn by confronting the worlds offered by these comics is, ultimately, their decision to make. By willingly embracing the YA label, the creators and publishers behind Afar and Spill Zone insist that making comics for young adults need not run contrary to the medium’s continued maturation. Thankfully, neither Afar nor Spill Zone ever feel like they are trying too hard to be YA. Her powers mirror the effects of a good story: a fleeting opportunity to inhabit the lives and worlds of others. These telepathic exchanges, rendered in thought bubbles on the page, hint at the paranormal atmosphere surrounding Po’Town. They also make one start to wonder where this tale is headed. Brian K. She does communicate frequently with her curiously possessed doll, Vespertine. Lexa, too, was caught up in it. Instead, they provide readers with richly imagined worlds, worlds to contemplate and question. He deftly joins the ranks of other established YA authors like M. This frees up the creators to tell Bo’s story without any earthly encumbrances. Bo tells her brother about her ability to, as she puts it, “travel to other planets when I sleep.” Inotu responds by revealing that he has run afoul of a local politician’s bodyguard. One astral trip — this time to Maltura, a planet inhabited by a technologically advanced civilization that is trying to establish a more environmentally friendly way of life — brings deadly consequences, and Bo pledges to return to Maltura to rectify the situation. Graphic Policy, a website offering monthly reports about comic book readership based on data culled from Facebook, documents that more women in general and more young adult women in particular are engaging with the medium. Westerfeld has explained that he was inspired by images of the abandoned areas surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear facility. Bo’s parents soon find work that separates them from their children. The methodical opening chapter gives way to a more stimulating pace. To embrace the YA label is not to revert to some juvenile past but, as one recent panel at Comic-Con put it, to discover the future of comics. Both Afar and Spill Zone feature young female protagonists. The young female protagonist in Spill Zone finds herself thrust into a similar position, caring for a younger sibling and, in the absence of parental figures, assuming the role of decision maker. And that’s probably for the best because it shifts all the attention to the weird effects themselves. Although Tsunami launched Vaughan and Alphona’s now-classic Runaways (2003–2015), these failed initiatives would seem to indicate that, in a market dominated by older readers, it’s best to avoid pigeonholing a new series or a new character as YA. Still, what exactly is possessing Lexa’s doll remains in doubt. Answers might not come as readily as some would like. Though she somehow escaped with a busload of other children, Lexa is traumatized and rarely speaks. Addison speculates about a “nanotech accident colliding with the local nuclear power plant” or maybe something even more far-fetched like an “alien visitation,” but the cause of the titular spill is never fully revealed. According to a recent survey of retailers, you’re more likely to be standing next to a 30-year-old than a 13-year-old while perusing the shelves of your local comic book store. Spill Zone, initially serialized online beginning in 2016, was recently collected and published by First Second, a publisher with a solid record of producing graphic novels for children. Bo and Inotu’s father is a scam artist and, as his most recent scheme begins to draw the ire of local villagers, the family must relocate. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. They take up jobs under the protection of a benefactress, the enigmatic and powerful Abrinet (whose vast Yopan-based business empire is probably worthy of a series of its own). Addison lives with her sister, Lexa, on the outskirts of Poughkeepsie (a.k.a. The opening chapter establishes Bo as the smart, capable older sister of Inotu, who is introduced as the kind of overly earnest kid that easily falls into trouble. Created by veteran YA author Scott Westerfeld and artist Alex Puvilland, the comic opens at a pace that is anything but methodical. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s Paper Girls (2015–present) is highly regarded for its rollicking, unpredictable plot that centers on four Ohio teenagers who unwittingly become time travelers. The book is divided into three chapters, the first marked by a distinctly methodical pace. The opening sequence finds Addison on a motorbike racing through the streets of Po’Town, where she encounters and then outruns a lanky wolf-like creature. This fact doesn’t make them stand out; rather, it puts them at the leading edge of mainstream comics. The abandoned city and its odd assemblage of haunting phenomena are off-limits to visitors. Afar and Spill Zone reflect the changing landscape of the field, from how comics are produced and disseminated to who creates them and, most significantly, who reads them. If there are future volumes of Afar, I’ll be interested to see how del Duca and Seaton manage the challenge of making Bo’s world feel as consequential as the worlds she visits when she sleeps.