What exactly does it mean to describe something as a “YA graphic novel?” Does it mean that its primary audience is in their early teens? Because Mariko & Jillian Tamaki’s new graphic novel THIS ONE SUMMER may be a perfectly pitched invocation of what it’s like to be one of those awkwardly in-between kids — it is, without a doubt, a graphic novel ABOUT young adulthood — but it’s so richly layered and sensitive, so thoughtful and weary-wise that it feels like it may take a heart tutored in failure and loss and other grown-up sadnesses to fully appreciate its pains and pleasures.
Or maybe I’m not giving fledgling adults the credit they deserve for being complex and thoughtful and damaged. In this brave new world where Farel Dalrymple, Paul Pope, Gene Luen Yang and Jillian Tamaki all have their biggest, most ambitious projects, graphic novels with heavy content and profound, often frightening themes, marketed as YA material, whatever “T+” shit DC happens to be slinging looks even more puerile and embarrassing by comparison. The new model seems to be lame retread kids’ stuff for the aging nerds, literary works of deep human truth for the teenyboppers. Maybe the kids can handle more reality, more depth than we can — maybe they don’t know enough yet to be afraid of it.
True to its title, THIS ONE SUMMER is a season pressed between soft covers, on matte paper, in shades of blue ink. Rose spends her vacation in a beach cabin on an idyllic lake shore, wrapped up in quiet adventures with her younger friend Windy, trying with limited success to ignore her parents collapsing marriage and her mother’s bottomless clinical depression. An almost plotless ramble through an aimless, dissolute holiday, THIS ONE SUMMER is a gorgeously illustrated document of a girl clinging to memory and yearning for meaning.
Awago Beach is supposedly in Ontario, and the cars and film references seem to place the story in the late nineties, but none of that matters: the Tamakis walk a thin line in their depiction of the setting, giving it just enough lived-in detail — the ratty video rental/convenience store where Rose’s acne-flecked older crush works, the reenactments at the tourist-trappy Historic Heritage Huron village — to give it a sense of reality, of specificity, while in fact Awago beach as depicted here seems to float in some archetypal summer-cottage anywhere, a Coney Island of the mind, a place instantly recognizable to anyone bourgeois enough to have whiled away weeks or months at the shore (down the shore for those of us from the tri-state area) with their families as children, exquisitely bored, always tasting salt on your lips, living in bathing suits, your schedule moored to nothing but meal times.
The environment that Tamaki creates is stunning, rapturous with sensory detail. The pebbles under bare feet, the lush thrum of crickets and frogs, the wide hot sky and cool clean water — they’re all here, unbearably nostalgic, picturesque, perfect. But the underlying darkness of the crumbling family, Rose’s fear and insecurity, her clinging to and rejection of childlike pleasures — her awkward betwixtness, that itchy, uncomfortable young adulthood — are depicted with a devastating and fearless emotional honesty, an utter sensitivity, that never once tugs at a heart string yet denies no pain or longing. This book is tremendously powerful and affecting, but it’s quiet, observant, uninsistent, like Rose herself — it listens more than it speaks.
The densely wooded shore, the ancient richness of the underbrush, the hot sand, the sky heavy with stars — Tamaki uses a flowing, naturalistic line when drawing the outdoors, and it’s slightly at odds with the elegantly minimal cartoonists’ swoop and gesture that she uses for the characters. She’s at her best out there on the beach among the waves, where she can edge into the abstraction of light on water, a shifting beauty that means whatever we want it to mean — she uses the soft pencil that gives the book it’s cleanly hazy look to shade the murky depths, layered into nothingness, pure sun shimmering through rich blue textures. Her detailed yet iconic sense of the natural world gives the book a dreamy quality befitting its subject matter. Nature’s grace surrounds the worrisome quiet: the blue ink, blue water and blue mood.
You are there on this beautiful lake, in this bleeding family — you can feel Rose’s father forcing his high spirits, his good-natured cajoling and silly jokes overcompensating for his wife’s grieving joylessness, a sweet-hearted daddy trying to lift his sagging brood on broad shoulders. You’re there in her friendship with Windy, who trails a year and a half behind Rose, spunkily trying to keep pace with Rose’s feigned sexual casualness, the blase shrug that masks her confusion and wayward, unknowable desire. You’re there, in this picture-perfect idyll, with sand between your toes, ice cream smudged on your lip, gentle burn on your cheeks, everything in its place — but blue shadows lengthening, darkness creeping over the water. You can return to the old cottage, to the same beach you’ve been visiting since you were a little kid, but you can’t go home again. And maybe that’s what adulthood — young or otherwise — is all about.