Young Frances by Harley Lin

A surface reading of Hartley Lin’s Young Frances would make it look like a workplace drama, almost like TV’s Mad Men without the smoking, drinking, and carousing. Telling the story of a young law clerk, Lin’s story could easily be the cliche of the spunky-yet-overlooked-and-overworked underdog who has to prove herself to her best friend, her co-workers, her boss and most importantly, to herself. But Young Frances is so much more than that, mainly thanks to the specificity that Lin puts into it, from the small details of Frances’ apartment after a going-away party for Vicki, her best friend, to the odd characteristics of her boss Mr. Castonguay, a man who’s intricacies either make him the successful lawyer he is or just another weird man who has somehow worked himself up to a place of power and wealth.

There are few comics that can create a sense of time and place. Whether it’s an attempt to be “timeless,” a lack of need for it for the story or just an inability to capture a true sense of place by the cartoonists, too many comics take place in a nebulous setting, focusing more on plot and narrative to hint at the when and where of a story rather than letting the art take the reader to a concrete moment and location. The law offices that Frances works and the apartment she lives in ground the story in a very contemporary Toronto but it also grounds Frances in a very recognizable world and helps define her character. Lin’s cartooning pays attention to the details of location, even when Vicki goes out to California to work on a tv show called “Bad Prosecutor.” Just the difference between the sunny land of make-believe in Los Angeles and the cold nights of Toronto create very specific spaces in this comic that chart the narrative paths of both characters.

As a best friend, Vicki is probably both the best thing and worst thing that Frances needs in her file but isn’t that what best friends are supposed to be? Vicki is the exact opposite of Frances. She’s emotionally messy, impetuous, and free in ways that Frances probably admires but could never be. Vicki and Frances are the perfect examples of “opposites attract.” They are so different but Lin shows how this great friendship supports one another and makes each examine their own lives through the prism of the other. Mostly we see Frances looking at her introverted life as a reflection of the extroverted Vicki and, while not explicitly stated, we can see each of Frances choices as an answer to the question “what would Vicki do?” even if she would never go to the extremes of her best friend.

So Vicki spends a large portion of this book acting as a motivator for Frances. It may be easy to see Vicki and the other various love interests, office co-workers, and bosses merely as plot devices to push Frances’ story forward except that Lin pays attention to the little character details of these characters so that they have their own lives and stories in the book even if they’re not the focus of Lin’s book. That everyone gets these little character moments of pride, uncertainty, craziness, and jealousy help mold the story into this tale where we see all of these forces and influences working on Frances, pushing and pulling her in the direction of her life.

A fantastic cartoonist, Lin draws in a natural, realistic world but has these moments and images that you can’t believe that you’re seeing. In the aftermath of a goodbye party for Vicki, as she’s leaving Toronto for sunny California, the giant head of a baby chick costume sits in an open oven. It’s a funny yet weirdly gruesome image; a head in an oven that echoes a flippant suicide joke that Frances made elsewhere in the story. And Frances’ boss, Mr. Castonguay is some exaggerated version of Little Orphan Annie’s Daddy Warbucks, complete with the vacant eyes, but with physical proportions that are almost like something out of an early Rob Liefeld comic. Castonguay's large, broad chest and gigantic hands are completely incongruous with the characters tiny head. It’s another one of Lin’s great details that are initially funny, then becomes slightly disorienting, and then becomes completely normal as you read the book.

Rereading this review, it almost feels like Frances could almost be a tertiary character in her own book but that is far from the truth. It’s just that like all of us, Frances is the sum of her experiences and her friends so they all play this big part in her life. As Lin tells her story, he’s layering in all of these people and events that shape the decisions that she makes on a daily basis. To understand her, Lin knows that we need to understand her life and everything in it. Crafting an incredibly rich cast around Frances, we get to know her through her experiences, being able to share her story with her rather than just reading it from the distance between eye and page.

Young Frances
Written and Drawn by Harley Lin
Published by Adhouse Books