You know who can write a coming-of-age story better than John Green? Faith Erin Hicks, that’s who. And she can draw, too. Friends With Boys may not have any cancer patients or shallow philosophizing, but it does have plenty of character drama, attractive manga-style artwork, clever plotting, and impeccable comic layouts. If that’s not enough, there’s also a ghost.
The story centers around Maggie McKay, a girl who is starting high school after a childhood of homeschooling. According to the author biography, Hicks herself was homeschooled until high school as well, and (also like Maggie) has three brothers. As such, Hicks is clearly using her own life experiences as material, but rather than taking the easy route and writing a memoir (as far too many other cartoonists have done), she has instead synthesized a fictional scenario using her own childhood as a basis. Well played.
Maggie’s transition to life in a public high school (a common rite of passage in homeschooling families) makes up the bulk of the story, understandably. Hicks adeptly captures the angst of the situation, and builds the plot around Maggie’s limited understanding of the school body’s history and politics. Her brothers, who have entered the school ahead of her, have already become part of a story which she as yet does not understand, and the relationship between her brothers and her new acquaintances is one which she can only understand by degrees. The other characters are generally unwilling to discuss painful past events, forcing Maggie to become something of a small-time detective to understand the secrets of a world already in motion. These mystery elements mingle effortlessly with the story’s dramatic side, which is concerned with Maggie’s newfound friendships and her family ties, especially her brothers. The relationship between siblings, particularly close siblings, is one which is often neglected in fiction, and Hicks’s handling here is commendable. Maggie’s brothers are distinct individuals, and Hicks depicts not only their relationships to Maggie but their relationships to each other. It’s a complex and realistic handling of siblinghood, a crucial but easily overlooked element in a story involving homeschooled children. Hicks understands her characters well, and adeptly transmits that understanding to the reader.
But what of the ghost? Maggie is haunted by the harmless but persistent specter of a nineteenth-century widow. A significant part of the plot revolves around Maggie’s attempts to put the spirit to rest, a process which involves cockamamie schemes involving the relics in a local museum. It’s all good fun, but seems to have an only rudimentary relevance to the primary plot. The ghost’s existence seems almost arbitrary, a plot thread that seems to say more about Hicks than it does about Maggie or the world she inhabits. Similarly, a plot thread relating to Maggie’s absent mother never really goes anywhere, and as a result ends up seeming like a superfluous addition to the plot. There’s a lot going on in this story, but it does at times stray into “too-much-of-a-good-thing” territory.
Hicks’s art is elegant and expressive. Her characters are rendered with confident brushstrokes which retain an expert grasp of anatomy without sacrificing fluidity. The whole style is suggestive of animation; there’s an Eisenerian sensibility to the way that characters’ bodies twist to convey their emotions. Hicks’s backgrounds are detailed without seeming cluttered, and she uses a spot gray to break up the compositions as necessary. Like most manga-inspired artists, Hicks exercises complete freedom over her panel arrangements, not adhering to any visible rules, but at no point did I find the continuity of the page confusing. Each page becomes a sort of tightly-constructed montage of black-and-white character drawings, moments of time fit side-by-side like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.
Friends With Boys is an excellent piece of work. The story is both intelligent and whimsical, its characters complex and believable. As a “young adult” novel it succeeds as well, if not better, than similar prose works, and is written with sufficient maturity to appeal to readers outside of its target demographic. Hicks’s art is attractive and dynamic, an ideal complement to her skills as a writer. It’s a nice book. I think you’ll like it.