By David Kelly
120 pages, black and white
Published by Northwest Press
It was in the ’90s when I first encountered David Kelly’s Steven’s Comics. The Xeric Foundation had given Kelly a grant to publish a collection of some of his comic strips, and I fell in love with Kelly’s stories of a young gay boy growing up in the ’70s and struggling with the world around him. This past year, Northwest Press published a compilation of all of the Steven’s Comics strips into a single book, and going back and re-reading them made me realize two things. First, Kelly was way ahead of his time. And second, these strips are just as good now as they were then.
Rainy Day Recess: The Complete Steven’s Comics is one of the books that perfectly captures both the pain and the joy of being a kid who is a little different. All written in a memoir style by main character Steven, stories range from being bullied to creating arts and crafts, while dealing with being raised by a divorced mother, and strong abandonment issues that only get worse rather than better. And while everything always initially appears to be black and white for Steven, we get to see through his eyes that not everything is as straight-forward and easy to understand as one would expect.
One of the early stories in Rainy Day Recess, by way of example, involves Steven taking in his sister’s two Indian dolls for show and tell; the dolls are stolen out of Steven’s desk and it’s a heartbreaking moment when Steven realizes that someone’s taken them. Even when they’re found, badly damaged, as a reader it’s hard to not feel great anger at the student who stole and broke the dolls, no doubt out of malice. But then Kelly gives us a glimpse into the life of the kid who took them, and suddenly nothing is quite so simple. What at first comes across as nothing but mean-spirited now feels like it’s part of something much larger and also much more depressing than just a broken doll. Since this is told entirely from Steven’s perspective, we never get the whole story, or in some ways even a proper conclusion to this other student’s story. Instead the reader, like Steven, is left to wonder and try and fill in the blanks themselves. It’s impressive how much emotion Kelly is able to wring out of his audience in just a few pages, and in a story that leaves so much hanging.
At other times in Rainy Day Recess, though, we get some unbridled joy coming through the page. When Steven shows us his ideas for games that he plays, or things that they’ve created at art camp, it’s hard to keep from feeling that same excitement bleeding through to you. Kelly’s able to capture that exuberance in such a way that you’re right alongside Steven; who knew that Wonder Woman dolls could be so exciting? And when Steven meets his friend Christopher and begins to crush on him (and quite possibly Christopher back at Steven), well, there’s such a sweetness involved that it’ll make your heart melt. Despite his fears about how those around him will react, Steven has such a pure joy in his interactions with Christopher that you can’t help but think it’s going to all work out.
While set firmly in the ’70s, it’s surprising how much of Rainy Day Recess still applies to today’s youth. Bullying still happens, and just like how many teachers still turn a blind eye from it in the present day, we see it loud and clear happening around Steven. The "New Best Friend" story in particular is bound to hit home for a lot of people, though. Kelly’s story about how Steven finds himself paired up with Kit, the one kid who’s a bigger outcast than Steven, and their relationship will be hard to forget. Watching the various levels of friendship the pair go through, and Steven’s own conflicted feelings about being near the one person lower on the totem pole than himself, is bound to stir up a lot of memories. It’s an area that Mike Dawson’s Troop 142 graphic novel recently explored as well, and Kelly’s own take on the idea (which goes in a different direction) is just as powerful. I’ve never known for certain how much (if any) of Kelly’s stories are based on real life, but there’s such a strong emotional punch involved here that it’s hard to shake the feeling that Kelly’s recounting some memories of his own to us.
One of the great things about the changing face of publishing in recent years is that we’re able to have more smaller publishers out there which can bring projects back into print that we otherwise might have never seen again. Rainy Day Recess: The Complete Steven’s Comics is the sort of comic that deserves to be available to a wider audience. Even better, there are ebook editions available too, which makes me like to think that it can get to all sorts of new readers that might otherwise never get to visit a well-stocked comic book store. Rainy Day Recess might have been set in the ’70s and created in the ’90s, but it turns out that another two-decade jump into the ’10s makes it no less captivating. Highly recommended.