School days

December 20, 2005

By pure coincidence, a recent chunk of my reading pile consisted of graphic novels with school settings. Looking at them back to back, it’s fun to see the different ways creators use their locations.

In Chigusa Kawai’s La Esperança (Digital Manga), the school campus is an elegant, thematically apt backdrop for the coming-of-age romantic melodrama. The unifying traits of her protagonists are guilt and redemption, so it’s only appropriate that the school is run by nuns. Innocent Georges has constructed an entire personality around not causing others pain in a misdirected attempt to atone for the sins of his family. Experienced Robert’s guilt over an unspecified incident manifests itself in provocation, particularly of painfully agreeable Georges. Robert wants to strip away what he thinks is Georges’s goody-two-shoes façade. Whether that’s out of projected self-loathing or envy, a romantic desire to liberate Georges from his self-restraint, boredom, or some other motive remains to be seen.

Their sparring plays out in the school’s majestic chapels, crumbling towers, and lush grounds. Classmates provide running commentary, first fascinated with brash (and older) newcomer Robert, then with bratty young royal Frederic. While a bit of a rich-kid stereotype, Frederic is a potent symbol of Georges’s self-imposed dilemma. Georges readily agrees to serve as Frederic’s “official friend,” subjecting himself to Frederic’s fits of mood and temper in the process. The student body keeps a close eye on their beloved, likeable Georges, shockingly in the thick of these polarizing new personalities. It makes the environment even more complex and organic.

Kawai takes advantage of the sense of place, but also the emotional intensity of the high-school experience. Everyone’s in transition, responding to their parents influence by trying to define themselves utterly independent of it. The hothouse environment of the private school is a really apt setting, beyond being beautifully rendered.

In The Dreaming (Tokyopop), Queenie Chan goes a bit further, making the boarding school setting a menacing character in its own right. Isolated and imposing, Greenwich Private College gives off an unsettling vibe, like Manderley in Rebecca. (It’s even got its own Mrs. Danvers in vice-principal Mrs. Skeener.) Unfortunately, twin transfer students Amber and Jeanie are particularly sensitive to bad vibes. Their lives become consumed in the mysteries of Greenwich, not least of which are the intermittent disappearances of students into the surrounding grounds.

I wonder if the sense of place and mood was established almost too effectively, as it tends to dwarf the impressions the characters might make. Twins Amber and Jeanie and their classmates are so focused on the mysteries of the school that I never really got a sense of them as individuals. Part of the successful balance of horror is giving the audience characters you can, well, mourn if something dreadful happens to them. The students of Greenwich aren’t defined much beyond their shared crisis, and while it’s natural for their school experience to be secondary to the driving plot, it might have created a higher level of investment to see more of them as regular students rather than sleuths and potential victims.

The Dreaming is lovely to look at, though. Chan has a solid, spooky handle on creating this kind of setting and conveying this kind of mood. Varied page composition and panel flow carry the reader along from waking life to the creepy nightmares the twins sometimes share.

In an entirely different neighborhood is dilapidated public institution Cromartie High School (ADV). This worst-of-the-worst temple of learning has a strangely abandoned feel. I don’t ever remember seeing a teacher, even in the background. It’s kind of like Peanuts; you know there must be grown-ups around somewhere, but they aren’t really relevant, and they’d probably only get in the way if they did show up.

CHS is a frequently whip-smart parody of frequently stupid manga, the battle genre where, somehow, an entire school has been conscripted into the service of brawling morons and their Byzantine system of one-upmanship.

But Eiji Nonaka has excised out the actual brawling, providing punchy, six-page treatises on delinquency. The brevity of the stories works in the book’s favor. Not all of the stories succeed, particularly in the first volume. (Nonaka really seemed to find his rhythm by the fourth, and I’m looking forward to seeing how things transition in the second and third.) But some of them are perfect little gems of parody. The structure gives Nonaka the liberty to throw in an idea simply because it seemed like it would be a hoot. If it isn’t, it doesn’t linger, and chances are good that the next three or four will work.

The cast is a cynically eclectic mix of morons and thugs, orbiting around profoundly out-of-place honors student Kamiyama. Nonaka makes good use of their comic possibilities individually and in the ways they interact. CHS is absurd, sometimes stupid, and very, very funny.