The Book Itself: A terrific blend of comic and reality. The bold color stripes melting down are one of the things that first drew me to this title, and even the title font seems hand-drawn.
In the male-dominated field of animation, Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are a dynamic duo, the friction of their differences driving them: Sharon, quietly ambitious but self-doubting; Mel, brash and unapologetic, always the life of the party. Best friends and artistic partners since the first week of college, where they bonded over their working-class roots and obvious talent, they spent their twenties ensconced in a gritty Brooklyn studio. Working, drinking, laughing. Drawing: Mel, to understand her tumultuous past, and Sharon, to lose herself altogether.
Now, after a decade of striving, the two are finally celebrating the release of their first full-length feature, which transforms Mel’s difficult childhood into a provocative and visually daring work of art. The toast of the indie film scene, they stand at the cusp of making it big. But with their success come doubt and destruction, cracks in their relationship threatening the delicate balance of their partnership. Sharon begins to feel expendable, suspecting that the ever-more raucous Mel is the real artist. During a trip to Sharon’s home state of Kentucky, the only other partner she has ever truly known—her troubled, charismatic childhood best friend, Teddy—reenters her life, and long-buried resentments rise to the surface, hastening a reckoning no one sees coming.
On the face of it, this book is about two female artists and how they deal with and help each other through some of life’s more brutal moments. Deeper than that, this story is about the things that break people and the things that repair people at the same time, and about love: love between friends, sisters, the fractured love of some families, and the crazy, teetering feeling of new love. Excuse the momentary foray into melodramatic sentimentality: this book is gorgeous, full of absolute devastation and wonderfully written, incandescent periods of bliss. In still some other words, it is a brilliant portrayal of life.
I didn’t really expect this book to scrape me so raw (does anyone really expect that really, when they pick up a book?) just as I didn’t really expect to find myself in so many character moments. I am not an artist – although one of my childhood ambitions was to become a cartoonist, my margin doodles these days would not inspire anyone – nor did I have the haunting background of either Mel or Sharon. But there were times when Sharon would say, describe something, or act – especially in the throes of a new relationship, or looking back on said relationship – where I had to sit back, where I had to physically stop reading the sentence, go back and re-read what had just struck me so hard. That’s me. I think/thought that way. I’ve done that before! were things I frequently thought. And more often I thought this during Sharon’s weak moments, during a cringe-worthy action or reaction. I saw myself in the flaws of another character.
And it was awesome.
The story is bookended by two major upsets in the character’s lives. I won’t spoil either of them, as you can’t even guess them from the book’s blurbs or synopsis. The plot is an emotional rollercoaster: there are screwed up families, twisted cartoons, drugs, sex, perversion, and great, monumental tragedy.
It is rather hard to describe and have an audience get what a cartoon or animation actually looks like. I can never be sure I pictured Mel and Sharon’s work accurately or even semi-accurately. I had to do a quick Google search sometimes for work they referenced just to get an idea of their inspirations (which was actually kind of cool). But I still felt like I could appreciate what they were doing as artists regardless.
The writing and the story it depicts is gritty and very raw sometimes: this is not a story for the faint of heart, and it is certainly not a lighthearted tale. But the story treats both the characters triumphant highs and bottom-scraping lows with the same deft touch. It’s really a beautiful, hard-to-watch-sometimes story. I can’t wait to see what else Kayla Rae Whitaker will come up with. She has another loyal reader with me
My Rating: 5 out of 5 graphite pencils