Graphic novel looks straight at teen angst
Local author Will’s artwork vibrant and real
BILL ROBERTSON Contrary to the popular belief of many, including politicians, civic leaders and high school coaches, sports are not a ready cure for the ills of assorted depressed, idle and woebegone teenagers. Team play is not for all. In fact, there are quite a few who find it abhorrent. This attitude, in part, underlies illustrator and graphic novelist Elaine M. Will’s first major work, Look Straight Ahead.
Another part of the philosophy that informs her work is that the arts — in any one of their disciplines — can, and often do, provide something to hang on to for a lonely, outcast and hugely self-critical young person. In the case of this graphic novel, Will’s protagonist is Jeremy Knowles, an introspective 17-year-old loner who wishes more than anything that he could be a great artist.
In Jeremy’s prodigious and fertile imagination, as well, he sees himself not just talking to but getting the girl of his dreams, as well as facing down the pair of big jocks who torment him for fun. Yes, to round out the usual cast of characters in a story such as this, is a pair of bewildered and increasingly impatient parents, a few lacklustre teachers who drone away at the front of the classroom and a best friend who can’t always be counted on.
This setup sounds so archetypal as to be a cliche, except it’s happening right now in high schools across the country. Kids are lost, kids are being bullied for being different and kids are killing themselves as a way out.
When the story opens, Jeremy is walking by the side of Circle Drive in a snowstorm, becoming increasingly tired and cold, and thinking of death. He lies down to sleep, and the story takes us into his past. There he is, hanging out with his best friend, having a laugh, but one of the pretty girls calls him a loser and tells him to grow up. To an extremely shy and sensitive boy, this is the kind of thing that starts the grim wheels turning. He careens through all the bad in his life, from unconscious fools at school to what he sees as unfeeling, demanding parents at home, to streets full of bizarre and dangerous people.
He also touches down on those occasional saviours in his life: His drawing pad and his desk at home where he works at becoming an artist, the music store where he tries to track down little gems he can listen to, and his dreams of success, acceptance and being saved by one particular girl.
Through these few highs and many lows, Will’s illustrations of Jeremy’s limited external life but vibrant interior life are nothing short of astonishing. She does the straight-ahead narrative work — boy sits in room talking with other boy, boy walks down city street — with realist precision, giving subtle shadings to intensity of feeling. But it’s when she features Jeremy’s mind run amok, pursued by his demons of self-loathing or absorbed in the pastures of brief soul-nourishment, that her pen does cartwheels, sometimes with superheroic intensity and energy, flinging her character across the sky, other times bolting him into a stunningly baroque prison of his mind’s own making.
Will’s novel is a testimony to the healing power of art, but it’s also about troubled teens, bullying, depression, the mental health system and the resilience a young person needs to pull her or himself out of the morass of self-hatred and recrimination and be counted among the living and the deserving to live. Art saves, but it’s the person who picks up the pen, the guitar or even just starts talking about what’s in the CD case that matters most.
Copies of Look Straight Ahead are available at Unreal City in Saskatoon, or from the author at blog.e2w-illustration.com.
Look Straight Ahead
By Elaine M. Will Cuckoo’s Nest Press $20