Thursday, December 8, 2011
GN Review -- Smile / Raina Telgemeier
I will start this review with a disclaimer: I've met Raina Telgemeier. I've moderated a panel she's been on. I've found her to be charming, intelligent, and a total sweetie when it comes to discussing her work and the comics industry in general. So I may be a little biased. However, I'll go on to say that much more influential people than me have already lauded Smile, her autobiographical comic story. People who are involved with the likes of the Boston Globe, the New York Times Book Review, the American Library Association, and... oh yeah... the Eisner Awards.
So if I come off as gushing, hopefully it'll be the justified kind.
Smile starts off with Raina, in sixth grade, tripping and falling in a manner that does serious damage to her two front teeth and the gumline beneath them. The next few years involve repeated trips to the dentist and orthodontist for braces, headgear, a special retainer... and all manner of frustration and uncertainty about the fate of her teeth. In addition, there are other concerns for her to deal with as a teenager: friends, boys, an annoying sister, and fitting in. And an earthquake (the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, if I'm not mistaken).
As the narrative moves towards high school, Raina gradually gets a better handle on things. There's still plenty of drama around her dental woes, but she gradually comes to have a better grip on things. She discovers her interest in and aptitude with drawing, as well as a burgeoning love for the visual arts and animation. Her friends from middle school, who seemed to treat her in a distinctly unfriendly manner at times, are given the proverbial boot as she comes to realize that she deserves better than them. Eventually her teeth are shaped and bonded to where things look normal, and she slowly comes into her own as a young woman and a well-adjusted individual.
One common axiom in writing is to write what you know, and Telgemeier has deftly taken this to heart, crafting a story that is genuine, funny, and it times sad. She does an admirable job of translating the uncertainties and frustrations common to many teens, and magnifies them realistically with the uniquely unsettling drama involving her teeth. She intersperses other plotlines regularly, keeping the story fresh at all times and constantly moving her autobiographical self to grow and progress through or past the dramas that arise in her life.
The many minor characters are well done, and complement the narrative of Telgemeier's younger self. Her family is concerned, at times overprotective, at times annoying (for various reasons), and always a loving presence, whereas her initial crowd of friends are petty, insecure, and put her down at every opportunity. There are evil teachers, evil and incompetent periodontists, sweet and awkward boys who kind of might (but maybe not) like her, and a whole host of memorable characters who help make the story a delight.
Telgemeier's artwork definitely suits this narrative. The cartoon style is simple and bright while still retaining plenty of expression and depth. The level of detail she puts into certain elements, particularly references to video games (an approximation of a screenshot from Super Mario Bros. 2, the package to Wizards and Warriors), are particularly endearing to the likes of me, who grew up playing many of the same games she slips into the story.
I recommend Smile to anyone who likes a good coming of age story, autobiography-style. I think teens and especially girls
will identify with it, but so will anyone who has ever experienced uncertainties about their appearance, their friends, or their view of themselves. If you want to read an uplifting story about dental drama and coming into your own, give Smile a shot. Highly recommended.