Axel-In-Charge: Navigating the "Civil War II" Landscape, Bringing DMC to Marvel
Jamie Rich has been writing comics for a while, but he’s never quite gotten the recognition he deserves, and it’s probably because he works in genres that aren’t really big among comics fans. I wonder if he’s better known outside the comics world than in it, because he writes some good Young Adult stuff that seems like it would be more well known among people who don’t necessarily buy a lot of comics but like YA stuff. He’s also written some very good noir stuff and some very good romance comics, including this one. Rich is a hell of a nice guy, and I always like chatting with him when I see him at conventions. It helps, of course, that I dig his work. This book might be the best thing I’ve read by him, which is nice.
I don’t really want to say too much about this book, because so much of it relies on some twists that, as you read it, you can probably figure out, but I still don’t want to spoil it for anyone. It reminds me of two movies, actually – Before Sunrise, with Ethan Hawke and the luminous Julie Delpy, and Mindwalk, with Liv Ullmann, Sam Waterston, and John Heard. I’ve written about the latter movie before – three people meet at Mt. Saint Michel and discuss philosophy, history, science, politics, love, and all things in between, while the former is a tremendous love story about two people who meet on a train, talk all night, fall in love, and part thinking they’ll never see each other again (the fact that Richard Linklater made two sequels doesn’t change the way they interact in the first movie). Rich introduces us to two characters – Travis and Charley – who have an instant connection at a party, but before Travis can find out more about Charley, an interruption allows her to flee. He tracks her down, and they have a crazy night together before the dawn comes and they need to separate. In that time, Rich manages to write a tremendous love story but also examine what love is, which is quite a trick.
What makes the two characters fascinating is that Rich makes them interesting on their own, so that when they come together, they don’t seem to need each other except for company, and therefore their relationship isn’t in any way twisted. The book is set in the near future, when androids and flying cars are common. Travis is a college student majoring in philosophy with a specialty in digital ethics, a new discipline that nevertheless sounds like a perfect useless liberal arts major (heck, I majored in English and minored in History, so I know useless!). Charley, meanwhile, is about to leave town because she’s in a “social program” that helps her pay her student loans. Rich wisely leaves that murky until later, when it will have more emotional impact, but Charley makes it clear to Travis that she’s leaving, so he shouldn’t fall in love with her. Yeah, of course that’s not going to work. Rich brings them together one night, but Travis doesn’t get Charley’s contact information, so he spends most of the next day trying to find her. When he does, he manages to charm her so she spends the night wandering the city with him. The two discuss love, but because of Travis’s major, he talks about free will and the ethics of using androids – they met at a party where a person introduced an android programmed to act like his dead mother, which creeps them both out quite a bit. Rich also introduces Gregor, a friend of Travis’s, who has some connections to the Russian mob, because why wouldn’t he? Rich cleverly doesn’t allow the subplot with the Russian gangsters to dominate the book, but it does come up at interesting times, mainly because as Travis and Charley get to know each other better, we realize that they’re not being entirely truthful with each other, and so the book becomes about identity, secrets, and why people keep secrets from each other. It’s a sweet story, but Rich never shies away from examining some of the murkier parts of falling in love, like how much you should reveal to someone if you’re not sure you’re ready to spend your life with them.
Another thing Rich does well is the dialogue of people meeting each other and getting to know each other. Travis and Charley are both intelligent people, and their dialogue reflects that, as they get into more metaphysical conversations. However, Rich knows that people meeting each other can be nervous and say foolish things, so both of them joke easily with the other, sometimes even a bit more harshly than they might want to, but because they’re both empathetic, they quickly realize that and backtrack. The back-and-forth between the two makes their relationship much more interesting, especially because Rich also uses internal narration to tell us what they’re thinking at crucial moments, which makes the dichotomy between what they’re saying and what they’re thinking even clearer. It also makes the moments where they decide to throw caution to the wind and say what’s on their mind more real and effective. They both say silly things, but those things are perfect in context because of the way they’re feeling each other out and wondering if what they’re about to say is the right thing. As they both learn over the course of the book, sometimes you just have to plow ahead and trust that you’re not going to screw up. The only small weakness in the book is that because of the time frame, some things seem to get magnified into importance that they don’t deserve. Charley gets angry that Travis didn’t bring something up about himself, but there really didn’t seem to be a good time for it. Maybe if the conversation had led there naturally and he willfully kept it to himself, she’d have a good reason to be grumpy, but he didn’t. Because it’s fairly integral to the plot, Rich has to bring it up, but it feels a bit odd. Luckily, the two move past it pretty quickly.
Nourigat, meanwhile, does stunning work on the book (I’ve met her, too, and I like her a lot, just for full disclosure). She creates a world just enough unlike ours so that we’re reminded that this takes place in the future, but things haven’t changed all that much, so the setting remains “normal” enough that it doesn’t overwhelm the story. There are still rich sections of town, run-down sections, and abandoned sections, even though the fact that a church has been abandoned because religion has become so marginalized seems a bit extreme (I think that as science continues to make leaps and bounds, religion will become even more entrenched – I think we can see that happening right now – and so Rich’s contention that it will fade away seems overly optimistic to me). More than the setting, however, is the way Nourigat draws the characters, because she really shines there. Everyone looks like regular folk – they’re not overly gorgeous, in other words – and Nourigat works hard to make Charley beautiful not only because of the way she looks but because of the way she interacts with Travis. Part of the reason Travis falls for her is because she’s smart and funny, and Nourigat does a wonderful job with the way she looks at him and teases him, so we can understand why he falls so hard for her. It’s the same way with Travis – he acts cooler than he is, but that’s part of his charm, and he never looks at her with disdain even after he learns some things she’d rather he not discover about her life. Nourigat does an amazing job with their exuberance at being young and in love, their embarrassment when things don’t go as they planned (she’s tremendous at embarrassment, which is an odd thing to say about an artist, but it’s true), and their fear that their relationship isn’t meant to be. She gets all the emotions of falling in love, which is nice because, well, the book’s about falling in love. She’s also very good at showing how the characters move through the world. I don’t know how Nourigat would do on a superhero comic, but the way she depicts movement in this book, at least, is very impressive. She knows how clothes would move when the characters move, and she draws the characters differently when they stand and when they walk, so we even get nice characterization from that. There’s a quick scene in the Russian nightclub where Travis happens to look at a hottie with her boyfriend, and Nourigat captures the silky confidence of the hottie who knows she’s all that, the preening pride of the Russian dude who’s banging her, Travis’s embarrassment at being caught looking at her (even though he wasn’t checking her out – she just happened to walk in front of him), and Charley’s sly face when she calls him out. It’s only a few panels, but Nourigat gets it all perfectly. There’s so much of that in this comic, and it makes Rich’s script richer and deeper. Even Nourigat’s coloring choice is inspired – the sleek blue makes the book feel “futuristic” without being too obvious about it. It’s just part of Nourigat’s brilliant execution of this story.
In a comics world where romances are often few and far between, it’s nice to see one so well done. A Boy and a Girl is a beautiful love story that manages to do some new things with an old format, which is always a good thing. Rich creates such fascinating characters and allows them free rein to explore not only their feelings, but the way people act in general, and Nourigat does a marvelous job bringing them to life. This is one of the best graphic novels I’ve read this year, and I hope it leads to even bigger and better things for the creators. That would be nice.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
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