July 26, 2009

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Aya

Written by Marguerite Abouet
Illustrated by Clement Oubrerie
Drawn and Quarterly

[I'm not sure if it makes any difference, but for the record, the edition I read was the UK import from Random House UK.]

Joann Sfar originally published this work, and you can tell that almost from the cover, as it has the same artistic style as his comics, both in terms of the page layouts and the narrative. Though there are no talking cats, you still have the same concept of a protagonist who is part of the world around them, yet definitely different.

Aya is a young woman living in what we'd call the Ivory Coast (thank you for the nice introduction to the time period, Dr. Chase, it was helpful for setting without getting bogged down too far in details). She has an extended family and friends, and even the luxury of a father holding down a pretty good job for a beer manufacturere. But she is far more interested in studying for her future than in landing a man or having boys fawn all over her. In fact, she even goes so far as to ignore one man's attentions entirely, with almost disastrous results. Meanwhile, it seems like most of the other characters really want to get their sexual thrills, often by sneaking past their parents, wives, or current boyfriend/girlfriends.

While everyone else has adventures, be it her father with a new company car, her one friend trying to land a weathly husband, other characters learning how to navigate the complicated world of relationships, our Aya sort of stays at the edges, helps with people's hair or listening to their problems, focusing solely on her desire to be a doctor--which given the time frame of 30 years ago is seen as just as rediculous in Africa as it would have been in America.

Aya herself feels to me like a bit of an odd choice for a focal character for just this reason. She seems to be around to be the reason for others to act or react. Aya won't go to a party, so she doesn't meet mysterious men who will cause her trouble. Aya happens to be the child of a letcherous, drunken father, so he looks all the worse when compared to his studious daughter. Aya doesn't hit it off with the rich man's son, so her friend can try to move in on him. Aya knows the facts about back-alley medicide, so she can drive the plot in another direction.

Fortunately, Abouet uses Aya as a springboard, so we get to see all these more interesting stories. The point of view never stays on Aya--we sort of see her, she acts or fails to act, and the story move on. It's almost like she's the Crypt Keeper from the old horror comics, but without the omniscence of such a character.

Artistically, Oubrerie definitely resembles Sfar, with the slightly exaggerated characters, flat art style, and backgrounds that capture the feel of the surroundings without taking away from the main characters. He does enough with the hair and mannerisms to prevent you from having to guess who is speaking, which I appreciate. (There is nothing worse to me in a relationship comic than having to keep flipping around to try and determine who's talking. With superheroes, you at least get costumes.) Those looking for realistic artwork, however, will be disappointed, as the emphasis is definitely on portaying a character's mood at the expense of how a person might actually look.

The back cover blurb calls this "the story of its nineteen-year old heroine," but I think that's untrue. This is more of an ensemble book like Fables or Love Roma--the characters come together to form a cohesive whole, and the story is not on any one particular person.

While the book may have been published by Drawn and Quarterly, "Aya" has more in common with a relationship book from Oni Press. Aya and her friends are young women, who interact with young men, doing the things (both positive and negative) that teenagers in love do, regardless of which continent they're on. The parents aren't free from vice, either and it's that added level of complexity that gives this a leg on other books written in the same ven, particularly manga, where the parents are often stock characters.

This book was very well received when it came out, and deservedly so--if you like relationship comics. If you don't, no amount of praise is going to make you like it better than you would, say, an Andi Watson book. If, however, you enjoy stories where people make flawed choices and must make the best of them, you'll definitely want to read "Aya" soon.