What It Feels Like for a Girl

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Teenage girls who, by some miracle, aren't automatically turned off by the insecure machismo of mainstream comicbooks would have to hunt pretty hard for stories that were remotely about their lives. How remarkable then that four different books, each by a woman cartoonist writing about growing up, have appeared or will appear this fall. Covering each book on a successive week in October, TIME.comix first examined Leela Corman's "Subway Series," about the tensed-up life of a modern, urban high-school girl. This week we go out to the 'burbs of the 1960s for Debbie Drechsler's rich, pastoral "The Summer of Love" (Drawn and Quarterly; 160pp hc; $24.95).

Drechsler has earned a comix rep since the early 1990s working exclusively in the genre of semi-autobiographical comix about growing up. Collected together in "Daddy's Girl," many of these deeply disturbing stories dealt with such taboo subjects as rape and familial sex abuse. Therefore anyone who knows her past work may be excused for feeling somewhat anxious with each turn of the page of her latest book. But worry not. "The Summer of Love" deals exclusively with the most typical of teenage experiences — alienation, confusion and anger.

The book opens with Lily Maier, age thirteen, moving (again!) into a "stupid," "ugly" house that looks like all the others. With a mostly absent father and a mother with two small children to watch, Lily has little to do with her family short of getting into near-comical spats with her slightly younger sister. "Summer of Love" moves along as Lily navigates new friends and new feelings of love while trying not be outcast or gain a bad reputation. Though it takes place in the late 1960s, nothing much has changed about the suburban teenage life except that they apparently didn't curse as much. Kids hang out in the woods and gossip about each other. A bunch of guys have a basement band and girls come to watch. Among other things, "Summer" creates an authentic portrait of one our great American subcultures.

Lily in the treehouse with Steve

One of the highlights for Lily, and the book, is her meeting Steve Farley, a guy in the band. Lily follows Steve, the first boy she ever kissed, into a treehouse in the woods. After several quiet panels of the two of them making out Steve suddenly stops and mysteriously apologizes. "For what," Lily thinks, "Giving me the best feelings I've ever had in my life?" Steve abruptly ends their time together, leaving Lily to wonder what she did wrong. She frets over it wishing she could go back and do it right, though we can see that Steve simply got embarrassed. These are great comix, because, told with few words, Drechsler reveals the character's confusion and awkwardness through the details of her drawing. Her character's body language and facial details are among the most expressive in this medium without being the least bit photo-realistic.

Drechsler, in one the most recognizable and unique styles in the medium, combines obsessive attention to certain details but not others. She loathes negative space, filling every millimeter of every panel with shading or detail. Clothing always rolls and ripples around the wearer's body thanks to multiple layers of shading. And yet, strikingly, she sometimes pays no attention to such traditional techniques as foreshortening or horizon lines. More strangely, rather than the usual black and white she has chosen a bizarre color scheme that evokes mint chocolate chip ice cream. Like suburbia itself, this peculiar mix of the natural with the oddly artificial takes some getting used to.

"Summer of Love," takes a dramatic turn from being a portrait of a typical teenager when Lily spies on her sister making out with another girl in the woods. "I thought only guys could be homos," she thinks, "this is so sick!" Later, when Lily makes the mistake of fooling around with, and then rejecting, the neighborhood loudmouth rumors about her sister become a weapon for him. Without being dramatic about it, "Summer of Love" ends on a note of sisterly solidarity.

Debbie Drechsler's artful and honest depiction of a girl's early teenage years make "Summer of Love" one of the outstanding books of the year. What a shame that it probably won't ever reach the audience that would appreciate it most. Young Adult fiction doesn't get better than this. Full of the frustration, confusion and mystery of growing up, it would make you nostalgic were it not so heartbreaking.

"The Summer of Love" can be found at superior comic stores and the publisher's website