While Image is my favorite major publisher of monthly comic titles, First Second is my favorite publisher with a small output of high quality graphic novels, using the term in a very limited sense to refer to comic books that are complete, unified novels either issued at a single point with no previous monthly issues OR trade collections of monthly issues clearly designed to be complete, sustained narrative stories with thematic coherence (such as Watchmen and Daytripper). Friends with Boys is another excellent First Second graphic novel aimed at YA, and though I certainly recommend this title for a YA audience, I suggest that it will be best appreciated by an adult reader who is willing to read this fast-paced tale very slowly in order to take in fully its visual and thematic subtleties.
The story opens as Maggie is about to start ninth grade, her first year of high school. And since she has been homeschooled by her mother, she has never been to a public school and is very nervous the morning of her first day. Her father is a good-natured, long-haired police officer, and Maggie seems close to both him and her three older brothers, all of whom were also homeschooled before starting in public school in the ninth grade. Maggie has two other problems in addition to her stress over starting high school — her mother has left the family after finishing her homeschooling duties for four children, and Maggie blames herself for being too much of a tomboy and never wanting to spend as much time with her mother as she wanted to spend with her father and brothers. Maggie’s second problem is that she is haunted by a ghost.
I fear that this graphic novel will be too easily passed up for the very reasons that make it such an excellent work of literature. First, the art is just plain beautiful to look at, but its primary function — as it should be — is to tell the story. And since the story acts as a character study of a young girl coming of age, the art focuses on subtle body language and facial expressions. It does such a good job that the novel takes only about an hour to read. Second, the writing is so smooth, there’s nothing to slow a reader down. I couldn’t stop reading it. I didn’t put it down once last night. But now, the next morning as I write this review, I’m ready to read it again in order to appreciate the art on a panel-by-panel basis.
The other reason this novel could easily be overlooked is that its greatness comes in subtle moments and in a series of thematically significant anti-climatic moments. For example, Maggie’s coming to terms with her mother’s departure is not depicted dramatically — it’s based on a few quiet scenes, and her ultimate acceptance of the situation is largely internal and thus only hinted at. Her situation with the ghost escalates, but that problem also resolves itself quietly, as it must, given the author’s view of life: Our lives change slowly, almost imperceptively, in ways we almost fail to notice ourselves. In other words, Maggie’s external situation in the world hardly changes from page one of the novel to the last page. Yet, at the same time, from her perspective, everything has changed because she sees herself and her brothers in a different light.
Most of the novel involves Maggie’s meeting Lucy, a young girl her age, and Lucy’s older brother. They dress a bit punk and are ostracized by the high school in-crowd — the school’s volleyball team in this Canadian small town. As Maggie makes friends with them, the story’s most realistic aspect is made clear: When we enter a social group for the first time, we don’t understand how everyone connects — who likes whom, who used to get along with whom, who is kind, who is popular, and who has specific resentments. And that’s Maggie’s experience: She tries to figure out how her two new friends fit in at the school and what her brothers think of them and why.
Maggie also finds out how her brothers are viewed publicly, what their social roles are, as she tries to establish her own place in this new school. Once again, the author is subtle — we catch Maggie spotting a fleeting look her brother gives her new friends and watch her puzzled look in response to the cryptic facial expression of a brother she thought she knew well. These moments are at the heart of everyday life, and Faith Erin Hicks bases her entire story on those expressions and other subtle aspects of very pedestrian human interaction — and that’s the genius of the work.
Friends with Boys is a wonderful break from the superhero and crime novels I love — it’s enjoyable to read a work that lacks in drama and major events. It makes me see my own life differently, as is often the result of reading the best literature. This novel is a gem that you should buy for your children, particularly if they are in 7th through 10th grade, I would guess. After that, I’m afraid they might not enjoy it again until they are much older. On the surface, it deals with making friends, not judging others, and having crushes. However, no couples even date or kiss in the story; we just see sweet smiles on faces as girls are touched by the kindness of high school boys when they rise above petty behavior. But these typical ethical points are presented as subtly as everything else in the novel, and this subtlety will be appreciated most by adults who give this book the attention it deserves. I really can’t recommend this book enough. I can’t wait to read more by this author.