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-il­lus­tra­

Look Straight Ahead

By Elaine M. Will Cuckoo’s Nest Press $20

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