This One Summer
Even if not everyone, many of us will share the experience of our teenage-years’ summers as neat narratives. Contrarily to the rest of the year, usually spent in the same environment with the same people time and again, and whose small differences are downplayed by the backdrop of sameness, summers have a definitive touch of story. Summers have a clear-cut beginning and end thanks to the travelling to the Place. This place can be the same as in a previous year or a new one, but it will have some degree of excitement : who will be there ? Someone we already know but that will have something different about them ? Are there new characters ? Are the maps of the place we’re bringing in our minds still good ? Will things fit into the images we have of them or will we discover a new dimension of what we thought familiar ? And during the teenage years, what with growing pains, hormones, a budding sexuality, the first glimpses of mature thinking, or at least, non-childish behaviour, actual freedom of agency, etc. all that narrative becomes even more exciting…
This One Summer explores the constraints of this neat narrative to the fullest, without breaking it apart. The mission of cousins Tamaki, writer Mariko and artist Jillian, is less to reinvent the wheel than to make it spin as smoothly and elegantly as possible, and they do that splendidly. It would be possible to say that this is one of the best “graphic fiction books for young women and teen girls” around, but narrowing it down to a certain gender and demographic bracket would be as dim-witted as limiting it to any given cultural group or to the lactose-intolerant. Even if we know that claims to “universal experiences” and “transcendence” is problematic, there is enough sense of community among human beings so that we can share something. Stories, for instance. Stories like This One Summer.
Rose is returning to Awago Beach, and once again she will meet Windy, her local friend, with whom she has spent many summers and, presumably, the little adventures and pastimes that children usually do in their summer ground. However, both of them are in the cusp of adolescence, and little by little their curiosity about what’s on the other side of adulthood, or whatever’s closer, is starting to make its siren call heard. Witnessing the romping of older teens in their surroundings becomes an experience by proxy. This includes drinking, smoking, hanging out late at night, partying, having sex, talking about sex, but also getting pregnant, having horrible discussions, talking about abortion and trying to commit suicide. This “live soap opera” becomes the main entertainment for Rose and Windy during their time in Awago, upon which they can project their expectations but also play out, even if in an imaginary way, their future choices and reactions. In a way, they are both eager to and terrified of becoming full-fledged participants in that life. There are moments when they almost become an active part in that web of relationships, but the teens themselves don’t even think of looking at Rose and Windy as potential “agents” in their world. For the teens, Rose and Windy are nothing but children outside of their own realm of experience, whereas the main characters can see themselves coming ever closer to the threshold of the teens’ world.
Another basso continuo that traverses This One Summer is Rose’s parents’ drama. The failed attempts at getting pregnant again become a burden of tension for them, and the supposed, almost compulsory, fun that they should have while in Awago turns into the proverbial needle that broke the camel’s back. Rose’s mother seems to withdraw herself, to put her thoughts in order, but at one time she does that to avoid interacting with others but also as a cry for help. Rose, as many kids do, feels it deeply, but is not sure how to handle it : she already understands these tensions, but it’s too soon for her to tackle with them in an adult fashion.
Caught between the teen melodrama and the gut-wrenching silence of her mother, Rose and Windy also have a third monster to face : the procession of classical 1970s and 1980s horror movies that they rent from the local store and watch in secret. Yet another dimension just beyond their “legal” reach, it is an experience that they at one time relish and detest. These movies (Friday the 13th, Jaws, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) do work intertextually, but almost like in a strange contrast, as if the graphic, exaggerated, gory horror they provide is less influential on their affective growth than the “horror” of being confronted with the pettiness and dreariness of the human relationships they see around them in Awago.
In Contemporary Comics Storytelling, Karin Kukkonen draws from Tooby and Cosmides’ “The Psychological Foundations of Culture” in order to explain how “[l]iterature would serve humans to practice their problem-solving skills by drawing inferences and constructing the mental model of the storyworld, and to practice their empathetic mind-reading skills through the understanding of fictional minds.” (94). By understanding summer as a narrative, and also by seeing that there is enough distance between Rose and Windy from all these “stories”, they become readable as text as well. Rose’s observation of the teenage soap, which she actively searches for and observes eagerly, and her parent’s drama, which, on the contrary, she tries to avoid and run away from, although unsuccessfully, contribute to her growth, even if she is not immediately or consciously aware of it.
For, in fact, despite Windy’s participation, it is Rose the protagonist (the cover points out to this, “deleting” Windy’s face). The narrative is focalised through Rose. Even if we have visual access to the other characters or certain vistas of the storyworld that could not possibly be shared by or shown through her ocular perspective, that very access is due to her proximity and relationship to it.
As I said in the beginning, the narrative organization is pretty straightforward, in terms of temporal order, levels of narration, and so on. The visual style of figuration is also unintrusive, and has a nice balance between a very readable stylisation and a number of gestural and material traces that always assure us that we’re looking at hand-drawn and painted pictures. This is not to say that the authors don’t employ many of comics’ own specific meaning-making techniques (of page composition, panel transition, word-image relationship) to create remarkable scenes or episodes. In a handful of pages, in an evermore detailed array of smaller and smaller panels (46-53), the routine activities of one day set immediately the tone for what will follow. Whether they take place or not, the reader’s inference will use these pages as the source for “fulfilling” the moments that we don’t have access through in other parts of the book. But there’s more.
Despite the attempts of looking at Japanese comics (manga) as a separate “language” from Western traditions of comics (see especially Neil Cohn’s discussion in The Visual Language of Comics, where an almost clean-cut distinction is made between “American Visual Language” and “Japanese Visual Language”), we tend to understand all these traditions, always already complex and varied within themselves, as part of an ongoing negotiation, filled with transactions, exchanges and mutual influences. The intertextuality that This One Summer nurtures with shôjo manga is very obvious, I think, without needing to go into pseudo-psychoanalytical analyses based on the authors’ biography. There are references in the diegetic world (the comics magazines the girls read) as much as there are stylistic choices in the character’s figuration. Windy, for instance, seems to stem from a long role-call of Miyazaki’s sidekick characters, usually full of a lust for life and the pleasures of eating, dancing, jumping about, and frolicking that acts as a perfectly contrasting match for the phlegmatic character of the protagonists, here played by Rose. Even their names seem to complement each other in that precise manner.
The way that onomatopoeias are used are also similar to manga strategies. Instead of “transcribing” only those natural, audible sounds of “our” (Western) perception, we have access to a lot of subtle bodily sounds : swallowing, stretching a gummy bear, nodding, letting an object go. Sounds that we would not hear given the distance of the image’s perspective and distance – switching off a flash-light, flip through channels on the remote – are made audible, as if making us focusing not only on the gesture, but their absolute importance in that moment, cancelling out the rest of the world. Just like when, at night, we close our eyes to better “see” and listen to the things around us. In page 97, Rose’s mother lets a bowl fall to the floor. Its little “slip” is drawn precisely between the fingertip and the bowl’s rim, as much as it is between the father’s attempt to kiss his wife and the domestic accident that annuls it. Is this slip on purpose, or is it due to the momentary distraction ? Or is the result of a refusal ? The “slip” stands in between a lot of things and it cannot be read solely for its “sound effect” purpose. The way these sounds are rendered through English nouns and verbs makes them less a translation of the aural dimension than it provides an additional access to the meanings conveyed by the characters’ actions and hidden thoughts. They’re a track of subtly revealed secrets, all of those things that want to be said but are not, that are almost made known but are not. As if on the verge of being confessed. A case in point, and funny too, is the “slut” sound of Rose’s flip-flops (on page 44), after the “discovery” and the immediate ban on that word.
In terms of composition, most pages are what Renaud Chavanne would call regular or semi-regular compositions, which both underline the meaning of what each panel conveys and maintain a certain regularity of rhythm, a linearity, order and clarity to the narrative, all the better to expand it in the double spreads where the panels bleed off the page, expanding its storyworld, mostly via nature : the clouded night skies, the welcoming ocean, the thick canopy of the woods, the blazing sun, a small patch of milkweeds, but also Rose’s room while she’s reading, as if that interior, at that moment, was pointing outward. Jillian Tamaki, who reveals a very subtle intelligence in guiding the reader’s eyes and attention throughout her pages and illustration, likes to use tight shots of details that break up the flow in order to make us understand that we are traversing this story with and through Rose. Sometimes she will cut off a character with the panel’s border, which emphasises the same effect. Many of the drawings are probably painted with a half-dry brush technique, leaving beautiful hollowed marks, or shades that allow you to see the individual brush hairs’ traces. And all of this is reproduced in a two-tone blue that gives This One Summer a permanent dusky twinge.
The book may be read within a nostalgic framework, perhaps, especially on the case of readers older than the protagonists. But the timbre of This One Summer is not melancholic at all. As in the best cases of shôjo manga, there is a quite sophisticated handling of the emotional challenges that do come across our lives, without ever resorting to overwhelming or larger-than-life situations. Life is large enough as it is, and to treat it as such with the elegance of the Tamakis, which they had done in a different manner with Skim, is no small feat. This book reveals the encounter with the matter-of-factness of life, as it is lived by others and how that, no matter how far it seems to be from our own experience (after all, we are not those other kids, we are not our parents, we are not those characters in a novel or a film), does affect us in profound manners. Even if we have to wait until next summer to realise how.