By Mike Dawson
272 pages, black and white
Published by Secret Acres
Troop 142 is a prime example of how reading an online comic versus a collected edition can be quite a different experience. I originally read Mike Dawson’s latest book in a serialized fashion, checking out the latest uploads to his website every time they trickled out. And read in that fashion, I enjoyed the book a great deal. It was fun, that sort of story about young men at camp that instantly feels real. But reading again a year later, all in one sitting? There’s a much stronger emotional heft to the story that I think is slightly lost in serialized format. Now that I’ve read it in both formats, I feel like the collected edition is the way to go.
Troop 142 operates under a tight structure; one week at Boy Scout Camp, running Sunday to Saturday. We’re given multiple viewpoint characters, although the primary one is Alan, the father of young scouts David and Jason, and an outsider to both Boy Scouts as well as camping. He’s our gateway to the tightly woven interplay that exists between the scouts and Scoutmasters, and he alternates between trying to fit in and a state of befuddlement with the people around him. He’s not a bad guy and overall a good narrator, although there are times when (oddly enough) he seems a little too centered on himself to see what’s truly going on around him until it’s almost too late, like the tent vandalism, or the hate-filled speech from Big Bear at the end of camp.
One of the things that I love about Troop 142 is how well Dawson captures the casual cruelty of children. There’s a point on the second day where, after several of the of the scouts are openly mocking Chuck, a scout from another troop asks, "Why do you guys hate him so much?" And rather than stop and think, "Maybe we should stop teasing him," the response is, "I dunno… I guess we just do!" Reading this moment brought back similar moments of taunting from my one year at Boy Scout Camp. I have a sinking feeling that everyone who’s gone to camp, regardless of the specific location or theme, is in the same boat.
The story is split up largely into vignettes, ranging from a lifesaving merit badge class to wondering how accurate some of their camping truly is. With a large overall cast it means that everyone gets their moment to shine (or fail, as the case may be) and while there are times when the numbers of kids felt a little daunting, when read over a shorter period of time I found that their personalities gelled much better for me. As a result it let me focus more on the dance of social pecking order that exists within the troop, which is both sad and grim. Watching each of the kids trying to not be the low boy on the totem pole results in a mad scramble where friends are tossed to the sidelines in favor of a brief step upward. It’s the sort of thing that happens in all walks of life, not just Boy Scout Camp, but it’s sad to see them all learning those skills at such an early time in their lives. Of course, we also see that in the interactions between Alan and Bill, the Scoutmaster for the troop. Bill is in many ways the destination for so many of the boys of Troop 142; belligerent and controlling, but at the same time there’s still that spark at his core (like in his conversation with Jason) that shows he’s got some compassion and understanding.
Dawson draws Troop 142 in his slightly cartoonish style, and it’s a great fit for his story. There’s just enough realism in his art to make everyone identifiable and to ground the story in the real world; at the same time its light style helps keep the book from being too grim. It does a good job of bringing to life the characters, though; a scene of three of the scouts walking away from a test, for instance, has all three of them in various states of happiness and anger, and each one of them is just radiating their feelings in a way that doesn’t require words. And even the lettering is nicely integrated into the art; when Jason has his final swim test, the sound effects tell the story even without being able to see what he’s actually doing. When we finally swing over to see Jason himself, the gentle arc of his word balloons slowly sinks to the bottom of the page (and near the bowling ball he’s supposed to be retrieving), his increasing defeat mirrored by their placement.
Troop 142 reminded me, ultimately, of my one year at Boy Scout Camp, and for that matter my one year as a Boy Scout. I’d enjoyed my three years of Cub Scouts, but going to camp was ultimately the beginning of my understanding that the Scouts (and especially my troop) wasn’t the right place for me. Dawson captures so many of the same elements of young men being together for a week with no outside distractions that it feels a bit eerie, and I suspect I’m not the only one in that boat. Troop 142 is simultaneously distressing and enlightening, and it’s Dawson’s strongest work to date. If you’ve never been to camp before, this is a great way to see exactly what you’ve been missing. I’ll leave it up to you as the reader to decide if missing that particular experience was a good or a bad thing.