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Monday, June 30, 2008

We Can Still Be Friends -- Is there anything more emotionally agonizing than to be a young man with a crush on someone who doesn't feel the same way? That's the focus of the entirety of We Can Still Be Friends, a graphic novel by Mawil published by Blank Slate Books.

Mawil's loose, kinetic cartooning gets across the enthusiasm for life felt by youth at large in the world, combining the spontaneity of Lewis Trondheim with the confidence and charm of Michel Rabagliati. The story is told in vignettes broken up by Trondheim-like borderless panels of the author entertaining his pals over beer, as he recounts the cute girls he liked a lot and never managed to win.

His visual style is wide and generous enough to convey both the energy of a highrise full of adolescent squatters having a beer party and the arresting elegance of youth and beauty -- some of the panels of the girls Mawil recalls are startling in their ability to convey his passion for them to the reader in just a few strokes of his pen. Especially memorable is one early panel in which he passes the girl he is smitten with as they line up to pick dance partners at school. All the characters in the panel are gray except Mawil and the girl, who is turned away from us but directly toward the author, just for a second. It's an amazing panel that will stay with you even once you're done reading the book.

There's a full-page image of Mawil and various boys and girls seen from above enjoying each other's company that plays with the reader's experience of the scene, and demonstrates pretty definitively that Mawil thinks a lot about how his pages work, what their effect is on the reader as they are experienced.

The back of the book has quotes from cartoonists Joe Matt and Jeffrey Brown, and anyone who enjoys their autobiographical comics will certainly be entranced by We Can Still Be Friends. I like Mawil's cosmopolitan flair for depicting all the places he goes and the people from various cultures that he meets in his travels. The graphic novel feels heartfelt and genuine in its emotions, and sophisticated and wise in the unfolding of the narrative. The ending isn't necessarily what you'll hope for, but it certainly feels true and real in the way it carries across how these things usually go, until they go some other way.



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