By Abby Denson
144 pages, black and white
Published by Manic D Press
Not everything is for everyone. Sometimes you try something out and find it to be horrible, running away almost instantly. Sometimes you’re just indifferent to it, not able to muster up more of an opinion than, “It was all right.” And sometimes, you can’t figure out why you’re not connecting with a book until it all falls into place and you realize that you aren’t its target audience as you originally believed. It’s really meant for someone entirely different, and once you see that, you can appreciate just how much they’ll be into it. And that, for me, is exactly how I felt with Abby Denson’s Tough Love: High School Confidential.
When Brian starts high school, he’s bracing himself for another year of disappointment and alienation. Then he goes to the martial arts club and meets Chris and is instantly smitten. But will Chris be interested in Brian? And even if Brian does find the guy of his dreams, how can he tell his family and friends?
Denson’s writing in Tough Love is remarkably straightforward, to the point of simplicity. Boy meets boy, boy falls in love with boy, boy gets boy. Even once you get past the basic plot structure, all of the trappings are predictable to the extreme, from Brian telling his best friend and his mother, to the subplot of Chris’s ex-boyfriend and how he fits into the picture. There aren’t any real surprises to anyone who’s been around the block; heroes live happily ever after, while villains get their just reward. At the same time, though, I really can’t help but think that this isn’t a book that’s meant for me. If I’d been about 10-15 years younger this book would’ve hit the spot, taking issues and concerns (that for the most part really are universal, gay or straight) and putting a slightly sugarcoated solution on them all. When you look at the book that way, it shifts from predictable to uplifting, the sort of escapism that you can get behind.
The back cover copy mentions that Denson was inspired by the shounen-ai (boys love) genre of manga, and to some extent that’s true not only in the writing but in the art. It’s a stripped down, basic art style, often using speed lines or a field of points as backgrounds. Denson often focuses entirely on her character’s heads, using the tight viewpoint to draw attention to their expressions and emotions. In many ways the art reminds me almost as if Brian himself was supposed to have drawn it; the figures and lettering sometimes seem to lack a bit of maturity, keeping the look of the book as rough and raw as Brian’s own emotions. It’s the sort of look that ultimately will probably turn off some readers even as it attracts others.
Tough Love is a book that has its heart in absolutely the right place. As an adult I can’t help but find it a little too trite, a little too ordinary. Marketed to teenagers, though, there’s a tremendous potential audience just waiting to discover something as up front and honest as Denson’s storytelling. I, for one, hope they find and love it.
Purchase Links: Amazon.com