By Faith Erin Hicks
224 pages, black and white
Published by First Second Books
I think most comic book readers have at least one creator whose works they’ve kept meaning to try out, but never gotten around to. Some of us even have lists; one of the people on mine for a while now has been Faith Erin Hicks. I’ve heard good things about her past books (writing and drawing Zombies Calling and The War at Ellsmere, and illustrating Brain Camp), and so with Friends With Boys due to be released just around the corner, now seemed a good a time as any to finally give Hicks a whirl. Fortunately, this is one of those situations where it was worth the wait.
Friends With Boys is a slightly odd book when you stop to think about it. On the surface, it’s got two different stories going on. There’s our main character Maggie, who after being home schooled for her mother for eight years, is about to enter high school where the only people she knows are her three older brothers. If that’s not bad enough, the only woman in her life (her mother) has just abandoned the family and gone to parts unknown. Meanwhile, there’s a secondary storyline, involving Maggie being haunted by a ghost from the local cemetery. And at a glance, the two really don’t have that much in common.
I think it was once I hit the halfway point of Friends With Boys that it hit me that this wasn’t a book with two major stories; rather, it’s a book with one story about Maggie trying to find her way in the world, and that some of the finer details (like the ghost in the cemetery) are just that. Looking at it on that level helps focus the book; it makes Maggie’s struggles to fit into high school and her budding friendship with Lucy and Alistair more interesting once you stop waiting for it to get sidelined by the ghost. That’s not to say that the part involving the ghost doesn’t intersect with the rest of the book, but it’s not a primary thrust of the overall story. And at that point, I felt like the book really began to sing. Alistair recounting how he shifted from being part of the cool kids to an outcast is a great anecdote in its own right, but Hicks tells it with such emotion that it feels like you’re actually living the moment through Alistair. It’s the part in the book where you’ll start caring about Alistair, too; in recounting his greatest betrayal of Lucy and his attempts since then to make it up to her, it shows a shift in conscience that you’ll wish more people in real life could have, too.
Maggie herself, though, is the star of Friends With Boys and I think Hicks makes her a likable main character. In some ways she initially reminded me a bit of Sarah Oleksyk’s protagonist from Ivy, but the big difference between Maggie and Ivy is that Maggie manages to make the right decisions in life. She stands up for herself, but privately admits her fears and indecision even while she puts on a good game face in public. And when the story with the ghost shows back up, to me it becomes important in that we see how Maggie has grown throughout Friends With Boys; she’s shifted from running away from or trying to ignore the ghost, to actively trying to address its presence and try to put it to rest. The rest of the supporting cast of Friends With Boys pale a bit in comparison to Maggie and Alistair; twin brothers Lloyd and Zander in particular feel a tiny bit underdeveloped for when they’re suddenly involved in the resolution, but ultimately I’d rather have had more pages of Maggie and Alistair than giving some of that space away for their own plot.
Hicks’ art is that slightly blocky, stripped down style that’s been on the rise in the last decade, and it looks great here. Right off the bat Hicks establishes her style when we see Daniel dragging brothers Lloyd and Zander across the hallway; it’s a little silly, a little cartoonish, and a lot of fun. It’s Maggie’s run through the cemetery, though, that helps solidify what’s good about Hicks’ art. She packs a lot of emotion into her art; not just in the expressions on people’s faces (which are lively and help nail the tenor of a scene), but even in the backgrounds. You get just the right mood looking at the tilted headstones, or the nearby homes. It helps you get a sense of the kind of neighborhood we’re looking at, and the world in which Maggie lives.
Friends With Boys is a coming-of-age story where the main character deals with both the very real (bullies and cliques) and the fantastical (being haunted by a ghost), and deals with them all with equal aplomb. It’s a charming little story that carries just the right emotional wallop when you’re least expecting it. The charm is good for the overall impression, but it’s those emotional gut punches that make me want to read more from Hicks. She’s definitely a cartoonist whose comics I should have read sooner. I won’t make that mistake again.