By Lisa Naffziger
Iron Circus Comics
We’re living in a golden age of comics. Even better, we’re living in a golden age of comics for all ages. In my ’70s youth, the choices were varied, but to a puerile point. We had Archie and his pals and gals; Richie Rich, Casper, and the rest of the stubby-legged Harvey crew; whatever TV cartoon tie-ins Gold Key pumped out; and DC’s kid-friendly—compared to Marvel’s more (soap) operatic—comics. They had their charms, but mainstream comics were just for kids back then. Then came the mid-’80s, with its realization that comics weren’t necessarily the crap factory previous generations thought ithey were. After a fertile few decades of steeping in a wide selection of styles and influences vis-à-vis high-lit comics, we have several new generations of writers and artists creating a wealth of titles and genres for kids, adults, and everyone in-between. Even better again, many of them are women.
As a past-my-due-date kid with kids of my own, I’m especially pleased with the preteen to young adult graphic novels now available. While fantasy and super-humans have their place, it’s refreshing to encounter the brighter and more personal work of Raina Telgemeier, Vera Brosgol, Victoria Jamieson, Cece Bell, and their peers, with their stories of everyday kids living everyday lives. In a field dominated by dudes meat-grinding out the latest iteration of Watchmen (What if superheroes were, like, y’know, real? And also jerks?), it’s refreshing to know I’m not leaving my son and daughter to read the latest poor misunderstood psychopath in tights apologia. And I like psychopath in tights apologias.
Lansing, Michigan, cartoonist Lisa Naffziger makes for a welcome addition to the above list of comics women with Minus, her freshman graphic novel. Minus is very much a young adult graphic novel. As a genre, YA is a challenge, requiring the author to monitor their storytelling for tender young palates, without making it tepid as tapioca. Violence and suspense are only intimated; thrills and chills are muted; and plot and pacing are simplified. Characters, likewise, aren’t blank slates so much as wipe boards with a short list of traits and features, leaving them to be drawn and fleshed out by the reader’s imagination and assumptions. Much of YA is about self-identification and empathy on the young reader’s part, being unfinished creatures themselves. That technique is well in play in Minus, though some of the book’s plot and many of the book’s characters are a hair less defined than they need to be.
Minus’ plot is as enjoyable as any episode of a decent police procedural, though given to minor clutter and Dickensian coincidences that tax one’s willing suspension of disbelief. Rebekkah “Beck” Beveroth, a home-schooled, farm-raised teen, and her father Gil are driving to the University of Chicago for an open house. On the way, the two make amiable chitchat about her future, but Gil goes from endearing parental concern about Beck leaving home to glove compartment gun-drawing paranoia at the sight of a police car. Something ain’t right, despite Beck’s reassurances to Gil otherwise.
Beck convinces Gil to pull over at a gas station for a pit stop. While in the washroom she hears gunfire, and emerges to find Gil missing and the attendant laying behind the counter. Beck considers calling for help, stumbling over the clerk’s cadaver(?) on her way to the store’s phone (spoiler: the poor guy is forgotten by everyone, even the cops, by the end), but freaks out and runs off instead.
Beck heads for the highway, looking for Gil, and gets a lift to Naperville from a nice, inquisitive lady, where she visits an Internet cafe and attempts to contact fellow U of C students she met on the school’s site. From here, the plot and Beck move in a straight and rapid line, helped by the fact that Beck is more acted upon than actor in her own story. Unlike most YA storylines of the past, the people around Beck follow the rules and ensure she’s quickly found and kept safe by the cops…who ask her to be bait for the bad guy. Well, maybe not that safe.
The plot proceeds swiftly, albeit with a dull thump or two. We discover Gil isn’t who he claims to be, but it doesn’t matter because, dramatic gasp, Beck has long known the truth: Gil kidnapped her as a child to get her away from her dirty cop father. Several other twists occur, but for the sake of simplicity let’s focus on that one.
To Beck’s good fortune, Gil is one of those nice child abductors you hear so much about, who chooses to raise and educate rather than exploit his stolen charge. I suppose it could happen, though it raises a few disturbing questions. Wanting to pack in several revelations, but skimping on exposition, Minus gets a little jumbled, and character motivations are hard to divine. Beck’s original family life is hinted at in a memory sequence or two, but what we see isn’t exactly hell on earth. Beck is lightly admonished by her parents for misplacing her stuffed cat, the titular Minus, but we’re not given much to go on regarding whatever badness Gil was, or thought he was, saving her from. Taking Beck (whose real name is Cheyenne) to the store, her biological father Howie leaves her in a play area while he confronts a potential shoplifter. Obviously overeager to escalate things with the thief, even after mall security turns up, Howie nonetheless doesn’t come across as particularly disturbed. He’s also genuinely terrified when his daughter goes missing. Deciding whether Howie is the bad guy Gil claims to be trying to save Beck from is hard to say based on what we’re shown, which is an important plot omission.
All doubt is removed in the present as Howie finds Beck on Facebook and wages a one-man crime wave, kidnapping Gil from the gas station, trashing the place, killing the attendant, and later, going full Capone with a baseball bat on a tied-up Gill. All the violence happens off-panel; it’s a YA book, of course. I don’t want to read too much into it, but perhaps it’s Naffziger’s desire to employ suggestion over explicit revelation. Surely in the no-holds-barred world of film, comics, and prestige TV, it’s a bold choice not to show the grue.
The rapidity of his characterization aside, Beck’s real dad is clearly a ne’er-do-well. Beck/Cheyenne’s mom, however, is another matter. Met once in flashback she seems perfectly fine, and her reaction to Beck’s abduction is omitted, though when she sees her now 17-year-old daughter in the police station, her single panel of shock speaks volumes. Beck lightly alludes to calling and speaking with her actual mom toward the book’s end, but this is so off-handed as to be perfunctory. It’s a peculiar oversight.
Upon consideration, Beck is somewhat a minus herself. She comes across not as innocent, but not mature or savvy enough to handle, much less comprehend, what happened and happens to her. In most stories of this type, the heroine faces a series of perilous encounters through which she grows wiser and more capable. But Beck, while resourceful, lacks agency—at least until the end. In a Depression-era storyline she’d ride the rails, disguised as a boy, meeting the Hobo King, and foiling a nest of train robbers before finding her long-lost mother in a soup kitchen. That sort of thing. But this is a 21st century Bildungsroman. Beck is sharp and sensible enough to find WiFi so she can contact a fellow Maroon to come pick her up, but is mostly a human baton handed off from character to character. She often declares her independence but goes with the flow anyway, even after being “betrayed” by Natalie. In older books of this type, the character Natalie would’ve been portrayed as a fink by alerting her mom (Surprise! Natalie’s mom is the nice lady who gave Beck a lift earlier on! And a cop! And Howie…and also Gil’s…ex-wife? I lost track.) to the unaccompanied, broke, barely legal young lady who shows up on her and her impressively oblivious boyfriend’s doorstep (guess he’s not majoring in criminology). Here, she obviously saved Beck’s life, or at least kept her safe. In fiction it’s so sensible an action as to be a plot twist.
I stress that Minus is imperfect but not unimpressive. I considered several avenues Naffziger could have explored but chose not to do so. By her name and appearance (and her mother’s as well), Beck/Cheyenne appears to be Native American, but this is never pursued or even mentioned. I’m not saying it’s a necessity, but it might have rounded out Beck’s character in an interesting way. Surely it might have made covering up Gil’s false parentage a bit more difficult, but that’s the trick, isn’t it?
I mention all of this because it makes Beck’s final touching scene visiting Gil in prison less heart-tugging and more discomforting. Given more background on her previous mistreatment, I might have been able to accept Gil as the hero of the piece, but there’s an interlude where Gil and a much younger Beck are fishing from a rowboat, and she falls overboard, whacking her head on the keel. Gil swiftly saves her and her wound is superficial, but when a neighbor, Mrs. Dorathy stops by to help, Beck/Cheyenne almost blows the whole scam when she asks the woman if “…grown-ups sometimes just…go get new families?”, and intimates that Gil snatched her somewhere. Mrs. Dorathy senses something’s amiss, but is given the polite bum’s rush by a cross-looking Gil. Apparently, she never gave the girl’s admission a second thought, and Gil grows more paranoid. Despite all this, when Beck visits Gil in prison at the book’s end, she smilingly assures him through the glass that she still considers him her real dad. I mean, we can all agree the Beast was a pretty cool and decent guy too, but the word Stockholm syndrome keeps coming to mind. Perhaps Naffziger wanted to leave the conclusion ambiguous, but she doesn’t quite hit the right notes in the coda to do so.
I have nothing but praise for Minus regarding its visuals. Naffziger has an engaging style. I think she and many of the aforementioned cartoonists grew up with a healthy diet of anime and the Disney animation renaissance. Her technique is cartoony without sacrificing realism, with a strong line and a good sense of panel composition that accommodates narrative flow and avoids repetition. She doesn’t seem too concerned with her “sets”, but drawing every stick of furniture and lamppost on the street isn’t every artist’s focus or forte. Naffziger’s sense of color and shade is captivating. She uses unexpected color combinations, and appears to be a fan of the purple and pink. Overall, it’s a good-looking book by a clearly developing graphic novelist. I look forward to seeing her future work.
Minus is available at the Iron Circus Comics website as well as most book and comic stores.