Americus by M. K. Reed & Jonathan Hill

Americus
by M. K. Reed & Jonathan Hill
First Second, 2011

Small, dark, unpopular Neil has just started high school in the ghastly Oklahoma town of Americus, without the protection of his best friend Danny, who has been shipped off to military school by his psychotically religious mother. Neil seeks comfort in the Potteresque Adventures of Apathea Ravenchilde, which unfortunately attracts the attention of Danny’s mom, who campaigns for it to be banned from the local library for the usual anti-occult reasons. It may not sound like a profound story, but it effectively eulogises the comfort derived from escaping into a book, and is refreshingly honest about the horrors of growing up in a stupid, nationalistic and intolerant community*, where the jerks you grew up with in middle school continue to torment you in high school.

Selections from The Adventures of Apathea Ravenchilde appear throughout the book, drawn in greyscale, while Neil’s ordinary life is depicted in a fluid brush line with no dark areas, except (cleverly) for the hair of certain characters. The good guys, in fact – Neil, his mother, the librarian who shares his passion for Ravenchilde and the scowling girl in his French class who makes her own dresses.

There’s many joys in the secondary characters, including Neil’s cousin’s cool boyfriend who opens up his world by introducing him to punk (with absolutely no negative side effects), the cynical older girls who befriend him in shop class, and his enthusiastic librarian friend who organizes a petition and counter-argument to the forces of moral piety, and meets a hot librarian from a neighbouring town along the way. Poor Neil, all of his friends are older and outnumbered by overweight anti-evolutionists who believe in American exceptionalism!

The only major fault of this excellent story (apart from the fact that the Ravenchilde extracts are kind of lame) is that the main villain, Danny’s mother, is a caricature of pious hypocrisy, quoting Bible verse selectively, tearing up library books she disagrees with, and when Danny claims to be gay (a claim which doesn’t appear to be followed through) she, er, banishes him to an all-boys school. A more sophisticated characterization would’ve helped.

*Oklahoma really doesn’t come over sympathetically in this book.
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