COMICS: John Reviews “The War at Ellsmere” by Faith Erin Hicks

An early draft of the cover.  The real ones in color!

An early draft of the cover. The real one's in color!

I’ll admit something to you right now, and I don’t care who knows it: I read young adult graphic novels. And why shouldn’t I? Nobody said you had to still be in high school to enjoy tales of awkward adolescence. If anything, they serve to remind me that the professional world is strikingly similar beneath the surface. Like Cruiserweight says, “Everything is high school.” With that in mind, I’m pleased to bring to your attention the best piece of YA graphic fiction since the Janes series’ cancellation: The War at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks, a delicious blend of Mean Girls and A Separate Peace, with just a pinch of Hogwarts’ School for Witchcraft and Wizardry thrown in to spice things up.

The hero of The War at Ellsmere is Juniper (known to her peers as Jun,) the brilliant thirteen-year-old daughter of a widowed and financially-struggling mother. Jun catches the first lucky break in her life when she is accepted to the prestigious Ellsmere Academy for Girls, a boarding school usually reserved for the children of the rich and famous. Her initial enthusiasm begins to wane as soon as she lays eyes on the Disneyesque castle that is Ellsmere, but her determination to better herself by learning as much as humanly possible steadies her resolve. Never one to fit in with the “in” crowd (is the hero ever popular in a YA story? Without having to “win” the respect of the student body, that is,) Jun makes friends with her roommate and fellow social outcast, Cassie (who is sweet, but suspected to be a few crayons short of a box.) Popular Girl Emily immediately attempts to verbally destroy Jun, naming her “The Project” of an overambitious bleeding-heart administrator and making snide comments about her family’s lack of wealth. Jun’s response is the first of many spectacular moments in the story:

“You totally got me there. I’m the charity case. By all means, continue: Make fun of my thrift store clothes, my ten dollar haircut, my single working mother … wow, it’s like all of my deep, unconscious fears are being laid bare before me — And y’know, I’m with you. Poor people suck, and I wish I had your spending ability. But you know what I’m glad I don’t have? An inner insecurity so profound I’d feel the need to pick on someone smaller than me in order to feel good about myself. So tell me, really, why are you such a creep? Mommy and Daddy didn’t love you enough? Inquiring minds want to know.”

One of the greatest joys of reading The War at Ellsmere is the way Hicks (through Jun) calls attention to the cliches of high school and forces characters to confront their absurdity. If only I’d had the right combination of intellect, common sense and general perspective to do the same when I was her age…

Right, the story! The struggle between Jun and Emily, Queen of the Schoolyard continues throughout the year, escalating from insults and threats all the way to criminal activity and physical violence. Everything finally comes to a head at a midnight confrontation in the mysterious (and supposedly haunted) Ellsmere Woods, where everyone learns that Cassie might not be as crazy as she seems. In typical YA novel fashion, good triumphs over evil, lessons are learned and fences are mended as Jun’s first year at Ellsmere draws to a close.

What makes The War at Ellsmere such a delight to read is the way it tackles some of the more conventional elements of the seemingly innumerable Mean Girls clones of the YA fiction world. Jun is clever and witty without being unrealistic or grating (more Daria than Juno,) and each member of the supporting cast has a unique voice and a healthy dose of realism injected into their usually cookie-cutter role. In the hands of a lesser writer and artist, the premise for The War at Ellsmere would simply be a by-the-numbers story of good-versus-popular. Thankfully, Faith Erin Hicks uses her impressive talents as both author and illustrator to tell a story that is fresh, funny and full of heart.

Faith Erin Hickss art has improved since Zombies Calling.

Faith Erin Hicks's art has improved since Zombies Calling.

It may have only been a year since Zombies Calling was published, but the quality of Hicks’s art has improved by leaps and bounds. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that The War at Ellsmere is printed on cleaner, brighter paper at a larger trim size, either. Her lines are clear and crisp, lending the panels a distinctly cartoonish quality that many traditional comics and manga lack. Her characters’ faces are remarkably expressive, and she moves so seamlessly between realistic and cartoonish expressions that you cease to notice the difference. It all seems so natural! Everything in both the foreground and background is spectacularly vivid, which is impressive for an independently-published book. SLG Publishing has clearly begun to recognize that Hicks is a rising star, and is giving her works the treatment they deserve. The full-color cover is gorgeous, and causes me to pine for more colored versions of Hicks’s art. Perhaps the next project will satisfy me, whatever it may be.

Writer/artist Faith Erin Hicks explains her creative process.

Writer/artist Faith Erin Hicks explains her creative process.

If you ever felt like that awkward outcast in high school, or if you just enjoy incredibly well-told stories of adolescence and social warfare, (or if you read the Scott Pilgrim series for more reasons than just the video game references) you’ll heartily enjoy The War at Ellsmere.

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2 Responses

  1. I think it’s more notable that you read YA fiction like this. It’s about girls; it’s about mean girls; it’s about mean girls in high school. Without Lindsay Lohan as a draw, not many boys would go within a mile of this stuff.

    I love the cartoon about her creative process, too.

    Have you seen Juno yet?

  2. To be fair, the reason I picked up TWaE was because I had enjoyed Zombies Calling and tend to follow creators from project to project. I still enjoyed it, though, even if it is a far cry from my typical fare (superheroes, sci-fi, fantasy, crime/mystery, etc.)

    No, I haven’t sat down and watched Juno yet. Perhaps I shouldn’t rip into it until I see it for myself (after all, I loathe when other people do the very same thing.)

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