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Review time! with The Girl Who Owned a City

The book on which this was based was published in 1975. Why is it being adapted for comics almost 40 years later? That’s a fine question, good readers!

I pre-ordered this book for two reasons: the premise – a girl must grow up fast when a plague kills everyone in the world over 12, and she has to protect her little brother from the menacing street gangs that rise up – sounded pretty good, and Joëlle Jones drew it. I love Jones’ art, but she always seems to draw stuff that I’m really not interested in, and it vexes me. So whenever she draws something I’m remotely interested in – like this – I buy it. Some day she’ll draw a Riddler, P. I. ongoing with Christina Weir and Nunzio DeFilippis and I will buy the living shit out of it, but that day might be far off, so I take what I can get! The original book was written by O. T. Nelson, but this comic was adapted by Dan Jolley and colored by Jenn Manley Lee. It’s published by Lerner, and it costs a mere $9.95.

Jones is fantastic on this book, which isn’t surprising. Her style helps, because she’s good at drawing kids who look like kids and not small adults – she does a very nice job with the gawkiness that almost-pubescent kids possess, and she draws the main character, Lisa Nelson, slightly out of proportion, another nice nod to the way kids on the cusp of puberty look. Jones is usually very good with facial expressions, and that’s on display here, as the kids go through a lot of emotional responses to their situations, and Jones does very well with them all. The kids are terrified, of course, because they’re on their own, and so they often show that, but they’re also kids, and the idea of utter freedom is intoxicating to them, and Jones gets both of those feelings very well. Lisa decides that she’s in charge, so she remains impassive throughout most of the book, but Jones does a nice job showing how, in moments when she’s alone, her body language speaks to her exhaustion and anxiety about what’s coming. There’s violence in the book, but a lot of the problems are solved by talking things out, and Jones has to express the characters’ changes in mood through their faces and body language, and she does a very good job with it. She doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to show off in the page layouts or in action scenes, which are two ways artists get to cut loose in comics, but she does what she can, changing “camera angles” and placing splash pages throughout to good effect – the first time we see Tom Logan, the book’s main antagonist, after something unfortunate happens to him, is a nice big reveal, and Jones does a good job with it. This book is often quite verbose, and it’s to Jones’ credit that she makes it as visually interesting as it is, because it could have been very dull to look at.

The writing is rather strange, though. Whenever I read an adaptation, I’m not sure how much of the original author is coming through or how much the adapter changes, so I’m not sure who to “blame,” I guess, for the writing not being quite as good as it could be. The plot begins soon after the plague has wiped everyone out – it turns bodies to dust, which is handy – with Lisa out foraging for supplies for her and her brother, Todd. She realizes that kids are banding together into gangs, and as she wants to protect her brother and the kids on her street, she organizes them into a militia. Their first attempt to protect themselves fails, so they move into an abandoned school and turn it into a fortress. They lose that, too, but Lisa isn’t going to give it up that easily, and she begins plotting to get it back. It’s very straight-forward.

The problem is in the way Nelson or Jolley writes this. I can’t help reading it as a political allegory, even if I don’t want to. Early on, Lisa explains to Todd that they can’t share their supplies with the thugs to buy them off, because she collected the supplies and it’s theirs, and if they give it to the others they’ll never learn to be self-sufficient. When they move into the school, Lisa tells everyone that she’s the absolute ruler and that if they don’t like it, they can leave. She brooks no dissension, and when she loses Glenbard (as she names the “city” she creates), she wants it back solely because she built it and because she thinks it’s hers. Lisa isn’t a bad character – her resolve saves lives and helps turn a chaotic situation into a real society – but it’s difficult to like her that much. Again, that’s not a problem, but what is an issue is that neither Nelson or Jolley ever deviate from this single-mindedness. This is a Young Adult novel, I get that, so perhaps I shouldn’t expect too much character development, but it certainly doesn’t seem like much to ask for. Once Lisa decides something, it’s done, and it doesn’t seem like she has any doubts or even any real obstacles to getting what she wants. Even her nemesis, Tom, isn’t that much of an impediment. The way Lisa is written seems a vehement refutation of the welfare state and a celebration of libertarianism, which is fine, but because the message lacks any nuance, it does come across as more of a polemic than a story. Lisa has made up her mind at the beginning of the book, and when any little doubt is introduced, it’s immediately brushed away because she’s always right. It’s very odd, and I kept wondering as I read this what she would do if she was confronted with a kid who couldn’t pull his own weight. All the kids in The Girl Who Owned a City are able-bodied and able-minded. What would Lisa do with a quadriplegic child or a kid who had Down Syndrome? I didn’t really want that in the book, but because Lisa’s character lacks any self-doubt or any idea about a wide variance of situations, we can’t even anticipate what she would do with a kid who couldn’t work for him- or herself. It makes everything in the book feel like a foregone conclusion, and that’s too bad.

Again, I don’t know how much of this reflects Nelson’s writing style, his beliefs, the time period when he wrote the book, or Jolley’s adaptation losing nuance the novel might have possessed. I just know that this very interesting premise of the book is neutered a bit by the lack of good characterization. The book moves along nicely, the final confrontation between Lisa and Tom actually works quite well, and the art is very nice, so I can Mildly Recommend the book. But I feel like there was a really great book somewhere in here, but it doesn’t come out. That’s a shame.

[Edit: I refused to look at anything about the book until I finished writing this review. Apparently the ideas are Nelson’s, who said he wanted to translate Ayn Rand’s ideas about Objectivism into something a kid could understand. Well, that solves that. Fascinating. Still, very weird to do, and even weirder to adapt to comics. But there you have it!]

6 Comments

My wife wrote a review of the novel years ago called “Ayn Rand for Kids”.

In 7th grade (early 80s), my friends and I all loved this book for some reason. I think we missed all the political points. But just loved the scenario.

Mark: Yeah, it’s interesting – I’ve read a few reviews in which the person said the book was really big at their schools, but I’ve never heard of it. It’s kind of weird. But yeah, the scenario is neat, and I don’t know how obvious the philosophy is in the novel or if it’s more distilled in the comic.

Lord of the Flies meets Kid Nation? Sounds neat. Too bad they are stuffing it with objectivism allegories.

I also read it in the early ’80s. I loved it at the time because anything with bad-ass kids in control of things was right up my alley. It was like the anti-Island-of-the-Blue-Dolphin (whose heroine was decidedly not bad-ass) and I think that is really what sold me on Nelson’s book way back when.

I haven’t wanted to reread it as an adult because I full-well recognize that my tastes as a child were childish and that while nostalgia can cover a multitude of sins, it works better when you’re not baldly confronted with the stuff. For that reason, I almost never revisit the stuff I thought was rad in my youth. I did that with The Dark Crystal and it was disastrous. A bunch of us who grew up with the movie got together for a viewing party. We were so excited. We didn’t end up finishing it. We got bored. Some of it (the puppets and some of the ideas) were awesome, but the story itself was dead. I’m kind of guessing that’s where I would land with The Girl Who Owned a City.

Travis Pelkie

July 4, 2012 at 12:38 am

I read this book, and I agree, it’s more polemic than story.

What’s fascinating to me is that all I know of Objectivism is Ditko is interested in it. But if the philosophy as distilled in this book is an accurate reflection of Objectivism, I’m amazed that any self-proclaimed Christians subscribe to these beliefs, because it seems to me the antithesis of what I’ve learned Christianity to be. She thinks that sharing supplies with all is bad because she did the work to get them, and sharing just gives everyone a small piece and when that’s gone, everyone’s back to square one. (Although…she ends up doing just that ANYWAY, as she has to share some supplies to get the kids to focus on creating the “city”, and by being fed, they then have an incentive to work harder to STAY fed. So her own philosophy has to be broken to feed her dictatorship….). It’s kind of a “greed is ok, because I’ve earned the right to be greedy by working hard” stance.

Also, if you take the stance that you only should keep as much as you earn and shouldn’t share with hangers-on, why should she help her brother (to take the stance to a logical conclusion)?

It’s an interesting ethical stance in this book, because to me, I don’t see as hard a line as Lisa does between what she does and what the gangs are doing — she didn’t actually make or create or “earn” the food and supplies she gets, she’s taken them from farms where all the adults have died. How is that THAT different from the gangs taking those supplies from her? They’re using the skills they have, in being stronger and greater in number, as opposed to her skills, which are thinking out what to do and doing it.

Also, it is brought up in the book, but kind of dismissed — why IS it her city? Yes, she’s the one who organized everyone into building things up, but as soon as she’s ousted, she expects to retake the city, no problem. The fact that the city kind of breaks down without her seems to be a strike against her, though, no? If she’s that good at organizing, shouldn’t she be able to create a city that could survive without her? It’s a very adolescent world view (deliberately, of course) — the world would stop without her around, so she MUST take control. I’m sure dictators all over have shared this notion.

There’s a mention in the author bio that Nelson wanted to write a book to show kids that they could be self sufficient (or something to that effect), but it’s interesting that to do so, a post-apocalyptic, adult-less world had to be created. Why does everyone have to die before the kids can do things for themselves?

I’m guessing that either Robert Kirkman read this book, or someone noticed the similarities with the Walking Dead prison storyline, and that might play into why this book has come out.

And like you said, it’s a bit odd that a character like Lisa, who is so unlikeable, is the hero, but she has to be, because somehow everything she decides is the right decision.

An interesting book with nice art, but I’d say it’s probably a good adaptation of an adequate novel.

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