By Melissa Mendes
112 pages, black and white
"Sweet" is often used as a negative adjective these days. You can almost hear the disdain dripping off the words in some reviews, as the person talking about the work tosses it aside with a simple, throw-away word. The sad thing is, it doesn’t need to be. There are things out there where sweet is not only the best word to describe it, but it’s a positive. And to that list, I would most definitely add Melissa Mendes’ Freddy Stories, her collection of short comics about a young and headstrong girl named Freddy making her way through life.
The setup of Freddy Stories is fairly simple; Freddy is a young girl (perhaps 9 or 10?) who lives with her mother and her dog Frank, and has nearby neighbors Uncle Sully and Mrs. Medeiros. Beyond that? The sky’s the limit. We might get a story about Freddy playing slapjack with Uncle Sully, or pretending to fly a spaceship with neighborhood boy Steven. Each little vignette stands on its own, but some elements move from one to the next; we meet Steven for the first time in an early story, for example, who then becomes a recurring guest-star.
Mendes’ writing for Freddy Stories is a startlingly vivid memory of what it’s like to be a kid. The fun and excitement of winning a card game against an adult, of walking down to the corner store by yourself to play pinball, or a trip to the fair to ride the kiddie attractions and get some delicious fried dough. While it’s never outright stated, between the music, the lack of higher technology, or even being allowed to wander around a local fair without a parent, this feels like it’s set in the 1980s, and Mendes captures that earlier time well. Freddy has to make her own fun instead of going online, and with Mendes’ depiction of Freddy being a bit of a loner—between her dislike of the attention of her birthday party, or her building a den during recess and staying there by herself—it ends up being that much more interesting because she has to find different avenues to amuse herself.
Freddy is a memorable character in her own right; she’s incredibly strong-willed, but not in an annoying way. Mendes shows us this over time, so by the time that she stands up to a bully at the fair you, can believe that a little kid would stare down a boy much older and taller than her until she makes things right. I also found myself loving the previously-mentioned trip to play pinball because of how the older kids treated her when she arrived. Instead of ignoring or putting Freddy down, they clear out some space for her and pull up a chair to stand on, even cheering her on as she plays pinball. It’s an adorable moment, but more importantly it speaks volumes about her reputation in the neighborhood. The teenagers know who she is, they keep an eye out for her, and they encourage her. So many little tomboys would be picked on or dismissed, but Freddy instead seems to have made the world revolve around her through sheer force of will.
Mendes’ art in Freddy Stories is sweet, too, with a youthful style of art depicting Freddy’s world in six-panel pages. Mendes gives Freddy a standard look with her ever-present hoodie, and we get to see a wide range of emotions run across her face as she (figuratively) muscles her way through the world. I’m in some ways even more tickled by how she draws the supporting cast; her dog Frank is a big dark squiggle of ink, just like Freddy herself would see him, and Uncle Sully manages to look both warm and imposing at the same time.
Freddy Stories closes out the book with a twenty-four page story "Aunt Maria," about Freddy’s vacation with her aunt over the summer. It’s the perfect way to wrap up the book, with Freddy initially in tears at the thought of going away for two weeks, and then over time learning how to adjust to time out in the country and away from her normal routine. It’s a charming, enthralling piece, and just like Freddy’s time in the country you’ll look back at its conclusion and be amazed that you’re already at the ending even as you realize just how much you’ve seen. "Aunt Maria" sums up Freddy Stories perfectly, and it’s a pleasant way to look at just how much you’ve come to care for a fictional little girl. Freddy Stories is a charmer, and I definitely am going to read more comics from Mendes down the line. This is great stuff.