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The War at Ellsmere Paperback – December 16, 2008
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*Starred Review* Longtime Web cartoonist Hicks has written a spot-on graphic novel for girls who are too young or not yet jaded enough for Gossip Girl and its clones. Ellsmere is a posh boarding school where the titular war is one of class: the snooty rich bullies versus new girl Juniper (the year’s “scholarship project”) and her roommate, who is nicknamed the Orphan because her family provides her with no emotional support. By introducing an element of fantasy to support the message that being true to yourself is the right way to live your life, Hicks gives readers enough tension and quirky turns to satisfy and pleasantly surprise. Her loopy black-and-white art does a fine job of distinguishing the girls from each other, and Ellsmere is depicted as both traditional (plaid uniforms) as well as contemporary (laptops in the dorm rooms). Not just for kids with boarding-school fantasies, this comic should also be handed to budding writers and storytellers. Juniper is a fully developed, eminently realistic character whose self-confidence and emotional intelligence make her a role model not only for her classmates but also for readers who are less sure of themselves or haven’t yet discovered how to channel their own creativity. Grades 5-8. --Francisca Goldsmith
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Jun didn’t expect to make friends, which is good, since her refusal to kowtow and take up her designated position as needy poor girl puts her on the outs. She even accidentally insults her gentle roommate Cassie on the first day. Cassie, unfortunately, is used to it, being low girl in the ranks until now.
It’s an involving picture of how some situations seem inevitable in their development. Jun expects trouble, so she puts up a tough shield that aggravates her new classmates. The mean girls take the bait, and Jun rubs their faces in it, giving back more than she got, because she couldn’t resist the opening. Jun’s not perfect, but she’s also not deserving of how the grudge war escalates.
Messing with a smart girl is a bad idea, on both sides, and some of their rivalry is pure academic jealousy. Both are used to being top of their class, and obviously, that can’t still be true for both of them. Emily’s concerned about Jun giving the other girls “ideas” about changing around the established hierarchy, the one that benefits her. Plus, Emily is incredibly skilled at finding just the right location to drive her emotional knives. Some of the tactics are shocking for teens to contemplate, let alone execute.
Hicks’ blocky, big-headed art reminds me of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim; this book would be a good choice for a fan of that series looking for something to read next. The style foregrounds the characters’ emotions, making their expressions central. I particularly liked the scene where Cassie is shown a different way and realizes that Jun and she might really be true friends. Cassie frowns off into the distance in a silent panel during their conversation, coming back with “I just noticed… I think Emily’s kind of evil.”
Hicks also fleshes out her settings and environments. The school has a solid presence that supports the class warfare element subtly, with the pressure of centuries of existence surrounding the young women. The emotional core of the story, Jun and Cassie’s growing friendship and the way it reveals Cassie’s hidden depths, drew me in as it developed. I particularly admired the way Hicks made Juniper well-rounded. I was rooting for her, of course, as the underdog, but she’s not perfect. She’s got her pride and her own weaknesses. (There’s also an argument to be made that the book is really Cassie’s story, not Jun’s.)
There is a fantasy element that appears near the end that I found completely unnecessary. Until then, it was a plausible story of teen girls growing up and learning which goals are acceptable and achievable. I wish Hicks had had enough confidence in her storytelling to leave out the mystical fix. (Yes, it was foreshadowed earlier on, but the historical tale could as easily just have been more atmosphere for the ancient school.) But even with that, I hope that there’s a sequel. I don’t want this to be the only time I see these characters. (Review originally posted at ComicsWorthReading.com.)
One thing I love about Hicks' work is that no character is ever a stereotype. Even the Mean Girl. Everything doesn't wrap up at the end in a pretty bow either. But you feel pretty good about Jun's future.
The witty self awareness of the dialog is sharp enough to amuse, yet never falls into the trap of it's own cleverness. Through out it all our heroines Juniper and Cassie remain authentic to subtle insecurities and character triumphs of teenagers. Equally notable is the absolutely engrossing artwork. With bold black ink strokes and an occasional gray wash Hick manages to draw an amazing range of scenes both intimate and expansive. Yet it the girls roaming the halls of Ellsmere that are the most remarkable. The combination of subject and medium is a recipe for simplified caricatures differentiated only by stereotypical attributes, but Hick's young protagonists are anything but. Juniper's tomboyish dress and sullen defensiveness change in a flash to a mischievous determination all while remaining unmistakably her. Cassie's art work is even more remarkable, capturing both her ethereal elfin features and unspoken emotions in a handful of heavy dark lines. Even our antagonists individual fashion sense deserves note.
Are there negatives? Of course, but I'm not writing a school essay or proving my critical chops by nitpicking a creation I would be proud of myself. Hick's work was a delightful surprise and personally I can't wait for her next creation. In fact I think I'll go order more of her books now...