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Side-by-side Review: 'Drama' by Raina Telgemeier and 'Cardboard' by Doug TenNapel


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A review of two books that bump into each other at the intersection of tween lit, graphic novels and politics.



Both released in 2012, 'Drama' and 'Cardboard' seem to stand almost as relics of their time now, a mere 6 years later.


Their politics seem so retro given the current topics and confrontational tactics dominating US public debate. One book is a gentle tale of group dynamics & sorting through relationship perils when they're all new to you by using empathy and consideration while the other book is heavy on physical conflict while espousing the values of self-sacrifice, honesty and caring.


From my descriptions, you may be asking yourself which book has what political leanings, but it is to both writers' credit that while their politics definitely guide the story, there is never any obvious sense of it and the story always comes first. The characters and plot sell the authors' message of how the world should work while being entertaining in themselves and retaining a universal appeal.


Let's talk about 'Drama' as a comic by itself. The art style stands out for being simple without being simplistic. The layouts are easy to follow, steady and orderly. The lines are clean and the details of expressions, clothes and the background are well chosen to create a world with personality, but which is not cluttered.


The story involves new seventh-grader Callie who jumps right into being set designer for her school's musical drama production. There is no real villain, except for maybe the lead actress who is a selfish diva, and the plot mostly involves Callie's crushes and her progress in getting her set design done. e.g. She thought she and an eighth-grader named Greg were getting to be an item since he broke up with his girlfriend, but Greg suddenly starts acting cold to her; or she needs to get a cannon to work for a battle scene, but the pyrotechnics won't create the pop she wants, so she needs to research and improvise some special effects.


There are no fistfights, no arguments even, just a lot of slice-of-life kind of stuff that all fits in the larger framework of getting the play ready and many conflicts get settled quickly and quietly, e.g. in a 6 page sequence, Callie's scheduled stage prep time gets interrupted by a delivery truck of heavy lights and she's annoyed and complains to the student who's the stage manager. But then the teacher appears and apologizes and explains it's his fault for scheduling at the wrong time. This means she's got to postpone her work, which affects the main plot a bit, but there's no sense of high stakes.


And that lack of high stakes may be exactly what makes 'Drama' work, oddly enough. There is a market for books that are comforting in the way they present a life free of upheaval and the sense of realism that the regularity creates makes the conflicts more impactful. However, it does demand the audience be willing to invest the time to connect to the characters and the characters have to have some charm to hold their attention. Luckily, the students in 'Drama,' through their design and dialogue do manage to be lively, relatable and likable.


'Cardboard,' on the other hand, is unapologetically magic escapism, with only some realism in the relationship's portrayed. And even that tends to be in service of the escapism.

The art is laid out in an easy to follow way, but with some dynamic elements like inset panels, open panels, single page panels etc. and the figure art is fluid. The lines are pretty clean, but there is a great range of motion and some 'rubberiness' to people and their faces. And the art does wonders with the amazing overflow of imagination in the emergence of the cardboard colony and its fantastical denizens.


The plot starts with a down-on-his-luck dad (Mike) who can only afford a cardboard box for his tween son's (Cam) birthday. The way it's all set up is an homage to the Gremlins movie and just as in Gremlins, the boy and his father don't care for the magic box the right way and the magic gets out of control, with cardboard creations coming to life and invading the neighborhood, with the help of the spoiled bully who lives across the street, Marcus.


There are some good bits of story in the action, such as Marcus not being the monster we first think him to be (and in fact he becomes the co-hero of the book by the end) or such as one of the cardboard creations bonding with Cam to the point of ultimate friendship, but the overall plot remains simple: Our heroes must stop the out-of-control magic creatures using wits, imagination and awesome magic weaponry.

There are a few false notes in the second half where I think Marcus, especially, becomes too 'insidery' in his comments, revealing the author's views, e.g. when he says to Cam, 'The only exercise I get is playing video games' or when he tearfully psychoanalyses himself to say his bad behavior all stems from low self-esteem and fear of loneliness. And also the ending epilogue wraps everything up seemingly too fast and too neatly.


So, still not sure which book promotes which politics yet?


Well, the first big clue I'll give you is visual: Callie, the hero of 'Drama' has pink/purple dyed hair and no one ever comments on it. Marcus, the villain of Cardboard, has limp, goth-style hair and one of the first things Mike does is tell him to get a haircut. (Right after Marcus self-righteously yells at him to buy a hybrid).


The kids of 'Drama' seem to be operating independent of adults for the most part. They cooperate in getting things done via consultation and mutual agreement and are properly multicultural with a couple of gay kids even. There is a lot of settling conflict by seeing things from the other person's point of view and apologizing. It's all very much a world of um sociable democracy so to speak. 


'Cardboard' is different It has a huge role for the dad, whose presence as a calm, principled and moral authority figure is implied to be the reason Cam is a good kid. (Being a good dad also involves blowing up a lot of monsters when they threaten his kid.) Marcus the bully on the other hand has indulgent parents who obey the 'No Entry' sign he puts on his bedroom door and only talk to him through said door and they are happy to leave him alone in the house with just a meaningless admonishment to 'keep the MTV down to less than four hours a night.'


The book seems to be saying that parents definitely need to take charge and kids need to be made to follow rules and conventions.


That said, the failing of this conservative-confirming parenting dichotomy we are shown is that it never quite fills in the specifics of what a good conservative parent does differently. There seems to be a hint that Marcus' parents know he is lying to them, yet choose to let him do as he wants anyway and they don't actively supervise him, but Cam's conservative archetype dad doesn't seem to be doing anything different. For instance, we never see him catching Cam in a lie and giving him consequences for it. So there's a subtle attack on liberal, hands-off parenting without making a case of what conservative, hands-on parenting would look like.

The two boys are also figureheads for the political dichotomy. Cam is hardworking and enjoys using his creativity. For instance, in a scene that rubs up against being cliche, like a lot of the early going of 'Cardboard' does,  Cam earns $5 mowing a lawn and gives it to his dad since he knows the household budget is tight. Marcus, on the other hand, is lazy and hates to work or create and only ever cares about acquiring things for himself. (By the end of the story, however, Marcus has come over to the side of self-reliance and gets a haircut and works part-time for Cam's Dad. He also loses his pale skin in favour of the tan of outdoor activity and switches his jagged, black clothes for a summer-green T-shirt.)


As for diversity, there are only 8 human characters in 'Cardboard,' compared to the dozens in 'Drama', but they are all white and straight.


Which brings us back to the gay eighth-graders. 


Is this a controversial thing in 2018? In the Caribbean, where I live and work, almost certainly. In the US, it probably depends on where you live. In 2012, I imagine it was definitely a bit daring for a middle school book.


On Amazon, there's a good chunk of 1-star reviews for 'Drama' all listing the surprise presence of gay/bi characters in a kids book as the reason. Most of the complaints stem from the fact that the author's previous books were popular with the 7-8 age group and so parent bought 'Drama' (intended for ages 10 up) and handed it un-previewed to their kids who in many cases had never heard of the concepts. Almost all these reviews, however, take pains to mention that they have nothing against the presence of gay characters, just that there was no warning so they could brief their kids on what was going on. If you take those sentiments at face value then mostly the gay kids angle wasn't a big deal. But some of the reviews specifically mention the book pushing the 'gay agenda' so the left-wing view of the book is pretty clear to the audience and the reaction to it wasn't all happy.


'Cardboard' on the other hand only has two 1-star reviews and they're both mistakes by kid readers who called it 'the best book ever' etc.  It is less obvious in its conservative view of the gay issue, but it does hint at it. The father's side plot involves him being attracted to Tina, the single woman who lives next door, but Mike is unable get past the memory of his wife to actually start something with Tina. At one point he has an encounter with a cardboard 'ghost' of his wife who tells him, "Cam needs a father...and a mother." And the result is the Dad showing up to take Tina for a date in the last two pages of the comic. (And before you think I'm reading too much into that, the author, Doug TenNapel, did confirm his conservative views and his opposition to gay marriage in a public interview a year after the book came out.)


So, in the end, we're left with two excellent books, both of which tell a good story, both with characters you want to root for and follow, but also both with definite socio-political underpinnings. To judge them by those underpinnings would be a mistake, though, I think. They are not incompatible with each other. I doubt their authors would ever agree on much politically, but the characters of the two books would probably be good friends to each other.

Edited by Jumbie
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