Danica Novgorodoff, writer/artist
adapted from the screenplay by James Ponsoldt
based on the short story by Benjamin Pierce
First Second, 2009
Beware of those epiphanies! They’ll get you every time. Like Novogorodoff’s previous book Slow Storm, Refresh Refresh creaks under the weight of meaning with which every scene is imbued. Every email from its latchkey-kid teenaged protagonist to his soldier father abroad is a poetic reverie about the emptiness of lives touched by war. Every conversation between his friend and his friend’s kid brother is an object lesson in how violence and hierarchical power relationships infect those raised around it. Every bully, every cute girl, every wild animal is a metaphor first and foremost. Once again, there’s a belief-beggaring twist involving violence that dances up to the edge of murderousness in a way that simply doesn’t flow from what has come before, and in this case is actually difficult to parse logistically. And once again, there’s one last desperate night where visions are had and this topsy-turvy world almost makes sense before it all fizzles out and fades away. By the end, I found I didn’t care whether the book’s trio of teen leads ever broke free of the stultifying pressures that were slowly crushing them, but I sure as heck wanted the author to!
That said, one thing that really surprised me about this book was the art. When I saw that Novgorodoff had (with the exception of one key sequence) subbed out her memorable gray watercolor washes for a more traditionally drawn style, complete with acidic colors by hired guns (“Color by Hilary Sycamore and Sky Blue Ink; lead colorist: Alex Campbell”), I shook my head in dismay. Here was the most distinctive thing about Novgorodoff’s earlier book, and now it’s gone? But Novgorodoff’s got the chops for her pencil-and-ink work to stand on its own without the more dramatic painted style supplementing it. It makes for a fluid read, and in such cases as the predatory Army recruiter who intersects with our trio of heroes at several key junctures, it’s a fine conveyor of character information.
I just wish it was being deployed in service of a story a little less beholden to the set-up of literary fiction at its most obligatorily portentous. You know what’s a good point of comparison here? Gipi’s Notes for a War Story. Both are bildungsromane about three teenage boys caught up in the moral, financial, and physical uncertainty of war. Both are drawn in a thin-line style that emphasizes the characters’ awkwardness and vulnerability, but also makes moments of violence that much more impactful. Both are published by First Second. But one feels like a comic, while the other feels like a short story with drawings. Perhaps it’s the “adaptation of an adaptation of a prose short story” set-up that’s the problem, I dunno, but I do know the problem’s there.