This One Summer, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. New York, New York: First Second Books. 320 pages. $17.99, paper.
Summer is float-time for some people, especially kids, and as This One Summer‘s pre-adolescent protagonist Rose says, “It feels good. Floating. It feels like flying.” But it’s worth noting that Rose clings to an inner-tube as she says this; no one can float forever, not safely, anyway. Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki’s poignant graphic novel shows again and again how the in-between quality of summertime can be real and illusive, a suspension of time that nonetheless begins a transition.
Set during what should be an idyllic summer at Awago Beach, somewhere in Ontario, This One Summer follows three sets of buckling relationships: Rose Wallace and her slightly younger, summers-only friend Windy, who are approaching adolescence timidly and from increasingly different points of view; Rose’s parents, Alice and Evan, whose marriage is straining over what at first seems to be her mother’s depression; and, emerging from the background, a teenager named Jenny who discovers that she’s pregnant with the child of the teenage Dunc, who works the tiny Awago convenience store. The faltering marriage already affects Rose and seeps into her friendship with Windy, but it’s the girls’ curiosity about growing up that brings the tumultuous story of Jenny and Dunc into view until a dramatic scene near the end of the comic when everyone in Awago is affected.
Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, cousins, offset the trap of nostalgia in This One Summer‘s premise in two ways. The first is Jillian Tamaki’s use of dark purple linework and value that evokes brush, etching, and charcoal, all of it organic and intimate. Despite the limitations of using only two tones—purple and the off-white of the paper—there’s an enormous amount of expressivity here, but the saturating darkness keeps the melodrama in check and imbues the pastoral setting with sadness. The second way is an abiding narrative ambiguity that reaches beyond Rose’s limited ability to understand the grown-up world around her. The grown-ups are confused to their cores, too. All we know at the beginning is that they’ve been trying unsuccessfully to have another child. Stocky and boyish, Rose’s father Evan seems bewildered by his wife’s melancholy, while everything about Rose’s mother—particularly the way Jillian Tamaki renders Alice’s facial expressions and her hunched skinny body—signals the heavy toll her confusion and failure to conceive another baby has taken on her entire being. It’s a vacation, says Evan, why can’t she lighten up? Well, she can’t. In one memorable scene, Alice’s sister and brother-in-law visit; both are vivacious, unburdened, and for a short while it seems they might lighten the mood. At the beach, though, the brother-in-law refuses to let Alice have her peace and her books on the beach, prodding and teasing her until Alice shoves him into the sand.
The aftermath of this outburst occurs in three, frankly beautiful panels that stretch in tiers across a double-page spread and show the width of the beach, reminding us of those awkward moments when private battles seep into the public domain. Subtly, all of the events in This One Summer explore this ebb and flow between the personal and the communal. One of the most affecting scenes in the comic occurs at the Historic Heritage Huron Village (a mouthful) where the pregnant Jenny is a tour guide. As Jenny and Windy look on, two local hoodlums ask Jenny if the Native Americans used birth control—”like, fuckin’ condoms made from squirrel skin or something.” Struggling to keep her dignity, Jenny eventually dismisses the group and sobs behind a hut until she’s comforted by a male co-worker. This combination of shame and remorse ties Jenny to Rose’s mother, first thematically, and then almost literally.
Rose, on the other hand, eventually seizes on what she witnesses at Historic Huron … well, the “village,” to further her crush on Dunc. Having watched her father head back to the city in mutual agreement with her mother—”Work stuff,” he lies to her, “No big deal”—Rose begins to see women as the cause of all problems. “Dad’s just happy with me,” she lectures her mother, “You don’t even WANT to be happy.” Her mother crumbles, so Rose directs her anger to Jenny. When she tells Windy that “all the girls here are sluts,” the chubby younger girl hesitantly resists, surrounded by a lake that seems as big as an ocean, and finally counters, “… that’s kind of sexist.” This moment threatens to divide the two friends, but Rose persists, boiling with resentment and convinced Jenny must be cheating on Dunc with the co-worker at the village. Soon she tries to leave a message for Dunc: “i think she is chea—” she writes before being scared off.
I don’t want to give away the climactic scene between Jenny and Rose’s mother, but clearly This One Summer revolves around the subjects of pregnancy and parenthood and not just Rose and Windy’s preadolescent enlightenment and evolving, tenuous friendship. If the thematics are a bit too neat, they’re also immensely powerful. Mariko and Jillian Tamaki give life to a cast of complex and unique women that covers multiple generations, including supporting characters like Windy’s granola mother and her cranky grandmother. This is a perspective too long ignored in the comics medium, and thankfully that’s beginning to change.
This One Summer is also a master class in the use of breakdowns—panel compositions from page to page—to control the comic’s pace and emotional resonance. Readers of Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy, an online comic, might be surprised by the flair and diversity of her layouts. Splash pages and double-page spreads, often focusing on minutia details like the girls’ legs as they walk down a sandy path or a simple image of Rose reading in her bedroom, are used first to create that floating quality of summer and then the vague but enormous sense of confusion and pain which plagues everyone. In one sequence, Evan leans in to kiss Alice in a top-to-bottom vertical panel, emphasizing the possibility of their happiness; in the very next panel, just as tall, the bowl Alice holds becomes the focus of the panel as it slips from her fingers, ruining the moment. Jillian Tamaki’s character designs are obviously influenced by manga but original—breaking down her nuance with expression, posture, movement would take another essay. Easier to miss is the influence of manga’s responsive panel layouts, where the emotion and thought and tension of a scene dictate the visual layout of the page. Stillness and silence are recognized as important storytelling elements in manga, and they are crucial in This One Summer.
First Second is marketing This One Summer as a teen graphic novel—says so right here on the back cover—and I suppose it is, but it might be better to think of it as an all-ages book. But I doubt that anyone who enjoys deft characterization and subtly rendered but significant conflict, or who has experienced a summer of drifting, will put down This One Summer once they open it. Lately it seems that more and more books about young protagonists are defined as belonging to the YA genre regardless of their style or depth of content. (And if you haven’t read a YA book recently, you might be surprised at common subject matter.) That not only contradicts the way we look at a good many classics of literature—are Joyce’s “Araby” or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye young-adult stories?—it also, here, pigeonholes Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s talent. The problem isn’t that literature made for young adults is inherently inferior to work for adults, it’s that some adults might not pick up This One Summer because of the young-adult label. Don’t you make that mistake.
Robert Loss is a visiting full-time faculty member at Columbus College of Art and Design where he teaches writing and literature. His short stories and critical writing have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Mayday, Ghettoblaster, The Comics Journal, and PopMatters, where he writes a column titled “Ties That Bind.” He serves as the programming coordinator for the Mix Comics Symposium which featured cartoonists Jeff Smith and Carol Tyler in 2013.