February 25, 2010

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Blue Monday Volume 1: The Kids are Alright

Written by Chynna Clugston-Major
Illustrated by Chynna Clugston-Major
Oni Press

What do you get when you mix a strong feminist attitude with shojo manga styling? Blue Monday, an entertaining comic set in high school but with female characters that are stronger than your average shojo heroine.

In this first volume, we have the first few issues of the series along with short stories from a few different publishers that launched the title. Bleu, the title character (named for her hair, which sadly we don't get to see because the comics are in black and white), tries to survive her high school years with the help of her friends Erin and Clover. They sometimes team up with, sometimes fight with two boys, Alan and Victor. Together, they wrangle over the usual high school things--pranks, concert tickets, and dates.

On the surface, that seems like rather common outings for plots. However, Clugston-Major takes those simple concepts and turns them into the most complex stories possible while still skirting the edge of a realistic story. For instance, in the first issue, the girls go after the boys for getting them in trouble and the schemes escalate to the point where one side is trying to ritually kill a favorite stuffed animal while the other puts up gay porn. In one of the short stories, Bleu homages Buster Keaton in a dream sequence with hilarious results and in another, she has a unique solution to a guilty conscience in a case of cemetery desecration. The basic structure may be elementary, but Clugston-Major takes the idea and runs with it in a new direction that works really well.

Clugston-Major also uses her free-thinking characters to skewer conventions. We often get to see teenage boys doing wacky things, but how often are the girls the primary pranksters? Bleu and her female friends sneak around, daydream instead of going to class, damage property, and, in the case of Clover, beat a lot of people the hell up. About the only thing traditional here, and I use that term loosely, is the idea that Bleu has a crush on a substitute teacher. However, instead of keeping that to herself as we'd expect, Bleu seems incapable of hiding it. The stories are played for laughs, but underneath is a strong female character with strong female friends. Just by appearing that way on the page, Bleu and her friends defy comic book norms.

In order to be good, however, a book must be more than convention-challenging ideas, no matter how well presented. Clugston-Major populates the book with fun characters that a reader quickly will care about. Bleu is super smart and very driven, but that often lands her in more trouble than she bargained for, as we see in the very first issue in this trade. As a reader, you quickly want to see how she weaves in and out of trouble. Bleu's friend Clover is the muscle, and her quick to anger nature is endearing (but makes you glad she's not real).

Our pair of male foils are likable, even if they often are scheming to see the girls naked. At heart, they're good boys who will help out Bleu and Clover if they need it. They just might ask for a pair of underwear in return, though, so as to make sure you don't start thinking too highly of them. Most of the adults are stick figures who tend to block the fun of the teens, and while that's not ideal in my eyes, it works fine here, as the focus is on outrageous, barely realistic, situations. Overall, it makes for a world where you want to see these characters get into adventures, and that's the best kind of character development you can ask for.

Blue Monday's art is even more heavily influenced by manga than the Scott Pilgrim series. Clugston-Major's drawings use every trick found in manga, from marginal characters to exaggerated faces to pointed chins. If you weren't used to reading manga, this might take some getting used to, but for me it looked perfectly normal. I really like how she used these tricks to good effect in moving the story along, especially the faces. Bleu, Clover, and the rest are expressive all over the place, just by making their mouths wider or getting rounder eyes. That's a trick that sometimes can bother me, but Clugston-Major makes it work here. I think part of that is because the entire story is larger than life. As a result, it doesn't seem unnatural for people to be contorting themselves the way it might if overused in a dramatic manga.

Whenever I want a solid read, I turn to Oni Press. I don't think they've ever let me down. Blue Monday is no exception to this ongoing rule. Fans of manga will really like this one, especially those who yearn for a strong female protagonist. I'd definitely recommend this for anyone looking to give a comic to a young woman. (As an aside, this would have been a perfect Minx title.) Those who've read Scott Pilgrim and want to see more western comics that use manga influences with great results definitely should check it out.

Aw, heck--this is just a fun comic with quirky characters. Anyone should like it! For those having a Blue Monday of their own, this might just be the cure for you!