Friday, 1 November 2019

#CBR11 Book 78: "Pumpkinheads" by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

Page count: 224 pages
Rating: 4 stars (Malin), 2.5 stars (Mark)

#CBR11 Bingo: Two heads are better than one

For two months of the year, all through high school, Deja and Josiah are best friends, while working at the local Pumpkin Patch extraordinaire. For four years, from the start of September until Halloween, they've been dutifully serving customers in the Succotash hut, and sharing pretty much everything with one another for those two months. Once they go back to school, they don't really interact.

This year is different. Deja and Josiah are seniors, and will be going to college next year. They're not returning to the Pumpkin Patch next year, so this is their last shift together. Josiah (Employee of the Month for each year he's worked there - with one vexing exception) believes it's going to be a normal shift, but Deja has a clever plan. Instead of letting Josiah mope over a big pot of succotash, they're going to have an adventure. It's finally time for Josiah to pluck up the courage to talk to the girl from the Fudge Shoppe who he's had a crush on for his entire time at the Pumpkin Patch, and along the way, Deja intends to eat as many of the various delicious snacks the various food stands the Patch has to offer.

The course of true love never did run smooth, and finding the elusive girl of Josiah's dreams turns out to be quite the quest. Deja and Josiah get to visit pretty much all of the sights around the Pumpkin Patch, and they also need to stay out of the way of the out of control runaway goat.

Having completed this book, the only Rainbow Rowell I have not yet read is her Runaways comics run. I will get there, have no fear. Any long time reader of my reviews, will know by now that Rainbow Rowell is one of my favourite authors currently writing books (sharing the coveted top spot with Ilona Andrews and Courtney Milan). Obviously this book was on my wish list as soon as I heard it was being created, and my lovely husband gave it to me for my birthday. It therefore seemed like a nice book for the two of us to review together, since I needed a co-writer to fill the last square of my Bingo Card. Let's just say that we had different opinions about the book. I'll pass the word along to my other half, shall I?

Mark: So, I like Rainbow Rowell, I like good young adult literature, I like comics, and I know Malin really enjoyed this, which is usually a good sign (our tastes are pretty divergent at times,  but it’s pretty rare for me to dislike something Malin rates highly). This should be a gimme, right?
Well…errr….actually, not so much. I didn’t actively *dis*like it, but it left me a lot more cold than I’d expected, and I’ve spent a few days since reading the book trying to figure out why.

Part of it is definitely the art. It’s not bad, by any means – the panel-to-panel storytelling is excellent, which is always a priority for me. But there’s a major problem with the character design, so far as I’m concerned. It was, as the afterword makes clear, a deliberate stylistic choice to make the two central characters look several years older than they’re supposed to be – there’s even an early sketch of what they originally looked like, and it was a lot closer to their ‘actual’ ages. But, in what I can only assume is a tribute to the late and sadly lamented Sideshow Luke Perry’s career-making, epoch-defining role in Beverly Hills 90210, Faith Erin Hicks consistently draws the lead male character, 17-year old Josiah, as though he’s being played by an actor in his mid-30s.

That’s not uncommon in comics, and there are good reasons to do it. But for this particular story, I think it becomes a problem, because Josiah is, to put it politely, a bit crap. Passive to the point of cowardice, self-absorbed to the point of narcissism, and entirely too willing to let his – far more capable and accomplished – female friend lead him, literally hand-in-hand, through life’s obstacles. It’s an all-too-common archetype, and while it’s a relatively common trap that socially awkward, shy, male teenagers can fall into – and, hopefully, work their way out of as they get older – it’s also, when it lingers into later life (as it all too frequently does), utterly toxic. And Josiah, in this book, looks too old for these character flaws to be as sympathetic or endearing as I suspect they’re intended to be. And then, at the end, he gets rewarded for it. I suspect it was intended to be a tale of growth – of him learning to be better, more self-confident, and all of that good stuff. But – and again, this is partly down to the art – I didn’t read it that way. It’s not a critique of the style, at all - cartoonish art like this can be incredibly expressive, and Hicks does a lovely job here with much of the characters’ body language, in particular. But the facial expressions given to Josiah aren’t, to my eyes, drawn with enough nuance or precision to really tell the story of that sort of internal change clearly enough. Sometimes, less is actually less.

I can see how, at a script level, this is a fairly cute story about teenage insecurity, friendship between very different personality types, and the bittersweet nature of that last, transitional stage of adolescence. But – almost entirely down to that one artistic choice – it reads, to me, like the story of a smart, capable, self-assured woman who takes on the responsibility of showing a hapless man how to be a less shit version of himself. And we’ve got too many of those stories already. Teenage boys, and especially teenage girls, deserve better. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, but it really did damage my ability to enjoy the book. It’s also, clearly by design, a very slight, inconsequential tale. That can be charming in its own right, but it means that there simply isn’t enough *there* that could have grabbed me hard enough to overcome the (subjective) obstacle presented by the art. Coupled with the fact that the setting – while extremely vivid and well-crafted, both visually and narratively – isn’t one that I particularly identify with, and you’ve got a book that, for reasons that have little to do with its actual quality, didn’t connect with me at all.

It’s well written, and (with the above-mentioned caveats) largely very well-illustrated. I’d like to read more work illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks – as I said, her panel-to-panel storytelling is crisp and clear, and she does a lovely job of evoking both the setting and the various characters (it’s a gratifyingly diverse cast, with a far wider variety of physical ‘types’ on display than is all-too-frequently the case in comics). But ultimately, it wasn’t for me. And…well, that’s OK. Not everything has to be aimed at me (and hey, I’m a middle-aged white man. Far too many things are aimed at me already). But, given how much I’ve enjoyed everything else Rainbow Rowell has written, I was still a little disappointed.

Malin: I will admit that I read through the book fairly quickly one afternoon and unlike my husband, who is a very analytical reader, I tend to read on much more of a surface level. While I see what Mark means about it being a rather slight story, I thought it was a sweet little adventure between friends and both the story and the art really evoked the best things about the autumn for me, the crisp air, colourful foliage, bundling up in cozy jumpers and coats (without having to wear quite the thickness of layers that you have to in winter), the comfort of certain foods or a nice cup of hot chocolate.

While I see why Mark was frustrated and a bit exasperated with Josiah, of all the characters in this comic, he's possibly the one I identify with. If I worked at a Pumpkin Patch, I would totally be the same, a bit too much of a goody two shoes, rule abiding, shy, kind of staying on the outskirts of things, because actually talking to people, especially someone I had a crush on, would be both exhausting and terrifying. I too need the brave, adventurous, extroverted friend to drag me along on adventures (this role has been filled by my BFF Lydia and/or my husband Mark for the last three decades, in Lydia's case, or two, in Mark's case) and make me take chances and really experience things. I am far too terrified of leaving my comfort zone, left to my own devices. So I see where my other half is coming from, but that is not the way this story read to me.

Is Deja way too awesome for Josiah? Yeah, she probably is. She's clearly the bee's knees (although being her friend might also be a bit exhausting at times) and I love her confidence, positivity, go-getting attitude. But I suspect a lot of people who don't know us very well wonder why my tall, handsome, charming, extroverted, eloquent and confident husband is married to someone who's as mousy, shy, introverted, and risk averse (and possibly quite dull seeming) as I am. So I'm all for pairings that seem mismatched on the surface.

Could there have been more depth and complexity to the story? Yes, probably. But I was never really expecting Watchmen-level subtlety or sophistication here. It's a cheerful autumnal adventure aimed at YA readers, celebrating friendship and romance and tasty fairground treats and fun. Reading this book made me happy - I liked the art and especially appreciated a lot of the background stuff going on throughout the story. I always love reading acknowledgements, and it's clear that this project was a great way for Rowell and Hicks to create something with a friend, and that they had a great time working together. I can see where my husband is coming from, but my take on this book is a much more positive one. I also really want to check out more of Faith Erin Hicks' work, I know she's done other graphic novels by herself and also written a YA novel now, if I'm not mistaken.

Judging a book by its cover: I think, overall, that Faith Erin Hicks' art throughout the book is very cute and mostly appropriate for the story. As my husband has pointed out, he thinks many of the characters are drawn to look older than the characters actually are, which is a bit of a shame, but it's still a very nice cover (although since it says Rainbow Rowell up there, I would have bought the book even if the entire thing was covered with actual spiders).

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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