Saturday, December 15, 2018

I Am Young

I Am Young is a dazzling collection of short stories that use music as a springboard to explore people's relationships to others and themselves. It features one larger narrative that is broken up throughout the book. That story is about Miriam and George, who meet at a Beatles concert in the 1960s and fall in love. Their relationship does not really work out, though they do check in with each other from time to time over the span of decades, sort of When Harry Met Sally-style, but (SPOILER) without the happy ending. The Beatles are a backdrop to their interactions, as they check in after pivotal events such as John Lennon's assassination and George Harrison's death. The story is presented in black in white in a "big eye" cartoon style, and I love how these comics feature both characters' voices in letters to each other that appear on the top and bottom of each page. I think this format requires going back and looking at these pages multiple times, but I feel that it was very rewarding to do so.

Other stories in this book appear in color and in slightly different styles. They center on other characters and they music they listen to, but I feel thematically they are linked by issues of longing, searching for one's place in the world, and also exploring life in general. In "Baby Fat" a young woman named Roberta marries her friend Pepe in order to get him a draft deferment. For him, it involves no romance, but she wants something more out of it that does not deliver. For both, the relationship does not play out as expected.
"K.M. & R.P. & MCMLXXI (1971)" is about two young women in high school who bond over Tom Jones, Camus, and literature. Both strive to be novelists one day, but there are some strains and anxieties about life after school that drive a wedge into their friendship.
"Nana" depicts an exchange between two high school teenagers who are into The Carpenters. Even though they share a love for that group, they are divided by social status, as one girl is very popular and the other more marginalized. I loved how this story in particular represented how music can play a part in joining and dividing people.
"Alvin" is set in the 1980s and is about an African-American, teen-aged boy who is into Chuck Berry. He is able to intellectualize his fandom and speak against why it's not inherently nostalgic, but even though he is into rock-and-roll, he is still out of touch with his peers. The reasons why seem partly to lie in racial terms, and the complex ways that a person can find himself separated from others while employing a strong sense of identity are both fascinating to watch in terms of character and more social considerations.
I Am Young simultaneously does two things well: it made me think about people's situations and searches for identity, and it also moved me with their emotional states. I loved this book by M. Dean, and it is a strong and welcome introduction to her comics. She was the first recipient of the Creators for Creators grant, and she also created the webcomics The Girl Who Flew Away and Coming Soon: Regents Walk.

All the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review that concluded, "This stunning debut pulls off the rare feat of drawing about music with authenticity and charm." John Seven wrote about its complexities, noting, "It’s not a depiction of the importance of music in young folks, but an examination of its place in young identity and relationships." Etelka Lehoczky was lukewarm about some of these stories but impressed with M. Dean's art and concluded, "This book about the past makes you wonder what its author will do next." Derek and I also discussed this book on a recent episode of the Comics Alternative podcast.

I Am Young was published by Fantagraphics, and they offer a preview and more here.

A preview copy was provided by the publisher.

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