Refresh, Refresh

Original short story by Benjamin Percy
Screenplay by James Ponsoldt
Adapted by Danica Novgorodoff
144 pages, color
Published by First Second Books

A graphic novel based on a screenplay based on a short story? I suppose there are more circuitous routes out there for graphic novels, but none are immediately springing to mind. That’s the slightly thankless task that Danica Novgorodoff has with Refresh, Refresh, a story that gets traced back to a short story by Benjamin Percy. Reading the graphic novel, though, I ended up with a slightly disconcerting feeling that had I just picked up Percy’s short story that I would have ended up with a much stronger and more interesting experience.

The plot of Refresh, Refresh is something that will be coming more prevalent in media of all sorts over the upcoming years, the story of people left at home when family members go to fight the war in Iraq. It’s certainly not a bad jumping off point, and following three high school boys who are friends in a small town where most of the adults are in Iraq has an instant hook. If there’s one thing in Novgorodoff’s adaptation that definitely rings true, it’s the idea that these teenagers without any of their role models or mentors around are starting to unravel as they age, not sure how to fully become a man. So we see them have boxing matches with each other, fight with their "enemies" from school, awkwardly try and pick up girls. Josh, Cody, and Gordon are in a position where we can clearly see disaster looming overhead.

If I had to hazard a guess on where things go wrong with Refresh, Refresh, though, I’d suspect it was the initial transition into a screenplay. The shift from prose to screenplay can be a difficult one; you often lose any internal thoughts from the characters, as well as narrative transitions and embellishments. So when Novgorodoff was given her starting point of the screenplay, a lot would have dropped out of Percy’s award-winning short story. The end result is something that’s a little underwhelming. The story is choppy as it lurches from one scene to the next, with often a lack of follow-up from events. For example, when the electricity in Cody’s house goes out, it’s never mentioned again; the subplot of his mother trying to come up with enough money for rent and utilities quietly ignored for the remainder of the book. Refresh, Refresh comes across more as a loosely connected series of vignettes than a cohesive whole.

Cody’s also the character who probably suffers the most in the shift away from the short story format. As outsiders looking in, he comes across the most hateful and random, especially with his little brother. The problem isn’t so much that you can’t empathize with him, but rather that it’s hard to even understand what’s going on in his head. One assumes it’s more than just simple spite, but unfortunately that’s how it comes across by the story’s end. Still, it’s better than Gordon, who doesn’t ever get a story of his own. And as for Josh’s college acceptance drama, it’s telegraphed so strongly and blatantly that I actually groaned when it hit its conclusion.

I did like Novgorodoff’s art for Refresh, Refresh, though. It’s a squiggly, rough style that makes it a good match for the story. She’s able to get that anger across the page, and it’s coupled with a certain kind of youthfulness in her art that more or less sums up the main characters. Towards the end, there’s a sequence that looks to be painted in watercolors and it makes me wonder how Refresh, Refresh would have looked if the entire book was created that way. It’s so raw and breathtaking that it’s worth reading just for those pages; that’s definitely something I’d like to see more of from Novgorodoff down the line.

Refresh, Refresh left me with a feeling that I want to read Percy’s original short story more than anything else. James Ponsoldt’s screenplay being turned into a graphic novel by Novgorodoff was perhaps a losing proposition from the very start, but I give Novgorodoff for trying her best to make it as strong as possible. I’d like to read more from Novgorodoff, but in the future I hope she goes back to drawing her own stories instead.

Purchase Links: | Powell’s Books

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