My best memories of high school are populated by people like the title character of Aya (Drawn & Quarterly): smart, strong-willed young women with a healthy skepticism of the more conventional obsessions of the people around them. Consequently, I find Aya enormously likable, even if the book that bears her name is kind of a trifle.
In spite of her many charms, Aya is just too sensible to get into the kind of mischief that can really drive a narrative. That’s good and bad – good because her character is admirable and endearing from beginning to end, and bad because she ends up being incidental to the action.
Fortunately, she’s surrounded by people who don’t share her grounded quality. Her best friends Adjoua and Bintou are as boy-crazy and fashion-forward as Aya is level-headed, and they’re surrounded by suitors who are just as dedicated to living in the moment. Their flirtations are marked by a recognizable mixture of playfulness and cynicism that can be very funny, though it’s hard to get too invested in any of the potential outcomes.
Aya is a conscientious objector in the battle of the sexes. She’ll reluctantly help her friends out of a jam, but she’s too ambitious to waste much time or consideration on the slackers in her circle. Her indifference marks her as an oddity in the 1970s Ivory Coast society portrayed here; almost everyone just expects her to marry, and she’s routinely criticized for being too studious when there are boys to date and style to maintain.
She generally resists the urge to return the criticism in kind, though illustrator Clément Oubrerie gives her ample hooded glances and rolling of the eyes. And writer Marguerite Abouet smartly resists the urge to make her a paragon. When Aya’s patience runs too thin, she delivers common sense with blistering directness, as in a scene where she subjects herself to a decoy date on a friend’s behalf.
But for my taste, there’s not enough of her. There are charms in watching the foibles of decent but flawed people look for love (or just fun) in all the wrong places, but Aya is so captivating that she makes the rest of the crowd seem trivial by comparison. It’s not the worst flaw a story can suffer, but it makes me want to read a story that’s actually about Aya to a greater degree than the one I’ve actually got in my hands.
It’s very likable, though. Abouet’s writing combines sharp observation and generous spirit, and I’d love to see more of her stories. Oubrerie is a talented illustrator, matching Abouet’s script note for note and mining plenty of comedy and warmth out of familiar scenarios.
So, how about a sequel? Aya did say she wants to be a doctor.