By Chynna Clugston
112 pages, black and white
Published by Graphix/Scholastic Books
Chynna Clugston’s Blue Monday is often characterized as “what would happen if Archie comics were written for older readers.” It’s certainly true that Clugston’s comics like Blue Monday and Scooter Girl aren’t intended for younger readers—so in many ways, that was one of the immediate attractions in looking at Queen Bee. What would happen when Clugston’s humor and sensibilities went to work on a book intended for all ages?
Haley Madison’s ready for something new. She and her mom just moved into the city, and ever since Haley discovered she has slightly uncontrollable psychokinesis powers, school’s been nothing short of a nightmare. That’s why she’s excited about being in a new place; she’s been practicing turning herself into one of the “cool kids” and she’s determined to fit in at John F. Kennedy Intermediate School. There are just two problems, though. First, her psychokinesis seems to have a mind of its own, tripping her up at just the wrong moments. And second, what happens when another transfer student arrives who has just the same goals and powers as Haley?
Reading Queen Bee, I’d told myself in advance that I shouldn’t automatically expect a younger version of Blue Monday, that this was for a different age group and would probably have a very different style. What I was relieved to see, though, was that in many ways a younger version of Blue Monday is what I got. I’m not saying that the two are the same in terms of plot elements, but rather that both books share the same basic sensibility. Haley’s struggles with classmates and fitting in are made memorable by Clugston’s wit; in this case it’s just aimed for a larger age range. Clugston does a good job at bringing across the sometimes fickle nature of junior high friendships, with Haley flipping over to “the Hive” and abandoning her first group of friends far too easily. Likewise, when Haley and Alexa start their feud, she really brings to live the nature of junior high fights, with everything escalating at a rapid-fire pace until both competitors have lost sight of the original argument, concentrating completely on the next volley.
The one frustrating thing about Queen Bee is that it feels like there’s almost too much extra material going on at the same time. We’re introduced to a whole group of characters early on (Paige the music-obsessed class vice-president, Rachel the future politician, and Jette the germophobe) that are never really seen again, for example. Likewise, we briefly see Haley’s treasured locket with its pictures inside, only to have it just as easily brushed aside. On one hand they’re both clearly setting up future volumes and storylines, but it feels a little too heavy-handed for something that’s never addressed again in the book; it’s a lack of subtlety that is a little surprising for Clugston.
Clugston’s art for Queen Bee is as sharp as always. There’s are two scenes early on which sum up for me Clugston’s approach to the art. The first is at Haley’s old school, where she’s trying to hit a softball but her psychokinesis is forever pulling it out of control. Even as the ball whips around in strange random patterns while Haley chases it, her fellow students just stare at her incredulously. One student seems stunned, a second scared, and the third just makes me laugh hysterically. They’re all different approaches to the same event, all look distinctly unique, and are all priceless. The other is just a page or two later, where Haley is practicing different expressions and catchphrases for transferring to her new school. There’s a cute energy to the scene; Haley’s trying so hard and you can really feel her standing in front of the mirror trying these different things out. It just comes across as very natural, very normal, and that’s what’s so great about Clugston’s art. Queen Bee is cute and fun, but even in the craziest moments there’s a sense of reality about it that helps give it that edge. You didn’t have someone with psychokinesis (well, probably not) but in all other ways the story sings true.
I came into Queen Bee hoping for a book that was as fun as Clugston’s books meant for older readers, and I think I found it here. It may not be quite as raw or evil as her other works, but the same spirit is definitely there. Queen Bee is in many ways the graphic novel equivalent of a John Hughes movie; teenage rivalries, a wicked sense of humor, and a fantastic soundtrack to boot. The end of Queen Bee shows preview pages for another volume, and I for one am delighted. There may not be any actual honey, but Queen Bee is still pretty darn sweet.