September 14, 2010

Review of JUST A STORY

Here's another comic book about a health issue from the Healthy Aboriginal Network:

JUST A STORYIn JUST A STORY, Wendy doesn’t have any friends her age and feels overwhelmed at school. Her little brother is more social but he’s quick to lose his temper and get into fights. Something is clearly bothering them both. Good thing they’re open to getting help and breaking down the stigma of mental health.

(Click on the link to see it in PDF form.)

And a guest review by Felicia Wetzig, who's working for Blue Corn Comics as an editorial assistant:JUST A STORY is a comic by Stephen Keewatin Sanderson about a young girl, Wendy, and her brother Adam. As a result of their troubled home life, neither can function in school--Wendy is so shy she can’t even answer questions in class, while Adam tries to solve all of his problems with violence. The story reaches a climax when Wendy writes a fictional story in class that she has used to characterize her own home life. Her teacher recognizes the problem and sends her to see the school guidance counselor. Eventually both children are able to overcome their problems and anger.

The scenario of a traumatic home life, and abusive parents causing children to struggle in school is, unfortunately, something many people can relate to, either having experienced it in their own life or knowing someone who has. The story however loses its realistic touch with an ending that seems too simple and fast. Are readers really supposed to believe that just by going to a school counselor both children suddenly have a normal school life? Unfortunately, the main problem--their parents--is never dealt with in any significant light. Treating the symptoms will not get rid of the disease, so in reality without help beyond the school guidance counselor, these children would have serious lingering problems.

Another possible drawback, is that the entire comic, although obviously aimed at aboriginals, never makes any mention of tribal connections. In fact, the main characters never reveal anything that may identify their race or ethnicity. On the upside, it goes along with the thought that Natives are just like everyone else so there is no need to linger on identity. After all, we would not expect a white character to identify himself so we know what category to place him in.

Artistically speaking, the sequence showing Wendy’s imagined version of her life is the most appealing section--beautifully drawn, and it works very well, but the rest of the comic could use some more work. Often the depiction of characters does not line up very well with the dialogue or the story line. On page 28, for example, when the teacher is explaining the writing assignment to the class she just looks completely dazed and confused.
Rob's review

Even though Steve Sanderson is drawing cartoon-like characters--big heads and eyes, stick limbs, three fingers per hand--I think the style works well. It emphasizes the wide-eyed innocence and fragility of our children.

Also good are the backgrounds, which Sanderson paints almost like watercolors. Though they show ordinary scenes--buildings, classrooms, fields--they create a three-dimensional world. You can imagine the kids moving through space and feeling dwarfed by their surroundings. This may not seem noteworthy, but too many comics focus on foreground images and don't give you a sense of place.

Alas, the comic indulges in one of my pet peeves: using too much space to tell the story. This story has 48 pages, but most of them have only four panels. It wouldn't have been hard to tell the same story in half the pages, which would've reduced the costs and made it cheaper for consumers.

The point of JUST A STORY is to encourage kids to talk about their problems. I'm not the target audience, but in that regard, I imagine it's a success. The comic might well give troubled kids a warm, fuzzy feeling about sharing their problems with sympathetic adults.

The talking solution

But as a piece of dramatic writing, it's a little light. We infer that the parents fight constantly because the kids say so, but the only clear evidence of it is an off-panel sound effect ("Crash"). There's too much telling and not enough showing.

Nor do the kids react strongly to this domestic situation. Adam pushes a boy who accidentally trips him, while Wendy merely acts shy and bites her fingernails. These things happen to many kids whether their parents are angry or not.

The story within the story is supposed to show us how bad the domestic situation is. A couple of problems with that. One, Wendy's story might be an exaggeration. Two, Wendy's reactions at home--crying every night--don't match her reactions at school--mild shyness and finger-biting. If biting her fingernails is Wendy's worst habit, does she really need counseling?

If I had written JUST A STORY, I probably would've given the kids several more problems at school. Then the fantasy sequence detailing their home life would've been more of a revelation. But perhaps health experts thought that showing the kids suffering would've been too intense for young readers. So Sanderson went with a mild version in which real adults don't do anything scary.

No doubt encouraging people to talk is a good thing. But the story's resolution is only a first step toward really resolving the problem. Getting the kids to open up won't matter much if their parents keep fighting. Maybe the next Healthy Aboriginal Network comic will explain what to do when you share your feelings but your parents still throw dishes at each other.

Anonymous Natives

Also, it's weird that there's not a single indicator that the kids are Native other than their dark brown skin. I guess British Columbia's government doesn't want to single out a particular tribe--which I consider a mistake. But not to mention any Native concepts or show any Native images? If JUST A STORY is for Native kids, it should give Native kids something to identify with.

And why do the fantasy versions of Wendy and Adam have lighter skin than the real-life versions? The implication is that princesses and princes can't have dark brown skin. This isn't the way to get brown-skinned kids to identify with the protagonists.

But overall, I think the lovely art and heartfelt message outweigh the criticisms. More to the point, I think JUST A STORY does what it sets out to do. If I knew kids who weren't talking about their problems, I'd try giving them this comic. And I wouldn't be surprised if it coaxed them to open up.

For more on the Healthy Aboriginal Network's comics, see:

Review of LEVEL UP
Residential-school comic-book videos
Gang-prevention comic-book videos

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