Fangirl Review

By | Wednesday, November 11, 2020 1 comment
I have never made a secret of the fact that I hated high school. Absolutely loathed it. Beyond the fairly typical sense of isolation or "nobody understands me" and all that, I recognized early on that the entire system was fucked up. That the whole system was designed a century earlier specifically to prepare people for laborious and repetitive grunt work in factories, and you were taught how to be compliant and not question authority. How it's built to be its own microcosm with pretty clearly stratified caste system that puts superficial traits like good looks and physical abilities at the top, and more substantive traits like creativity and intelligence at the bottom. I was happy to get my ass out of there as soon as I possibly could.

The follow-up to that, which I haven't discussed very much, is that I eagerly saw college as a fresh start. A place that was certainly very physically removed from where I grew up and, more importantly, a place where nobody knew me and I wasn't saddled with the baggage of whatever reputation I was given back in high shool. The school I went to boasted an undergraduate student population of something like 35,000. The dorm I stayed in Freshmen year had over 1,000 students by itself. There were plenty of opportunities to meet new people and start over.

And I did. I met a lot of different people, not just my first year there, but through my whole time at school. And it was an infinitely better experience! Pretty much everyone accepted me for who I was, regardless of whether they were in one of the art-related programs like I was or they were several years older or we had different tastes in music... By and large, people met me where I was, and it was a great experience.

But, in hindsight, there was one glaring problem the whole time. While those people accepted me for who I was, I was still me. I don't mean that in a disparaging way. I mean, yeah, I had some major self-esteem issues then, and I didn't really like myself at the time, but that's not what I'm talking about. When I say that I was still me, I mean that I didn't push my own boundaries as much as I could or should have. I didn't really get very far out of my comfort zone. I rarely tried foods that I hadn't eaten growing up. For two of my three internships, I stayed in the same city as the school itself and my third was only about an hour and a half away. In meeting new people, I did the same thing I'd always done and stayed pretty quiet, assuming the other person had zero interest in what I might have to say. I'd hear about parties or friends going out to a bar to unwind, and I rarely joined them. Once, my housemates threw a huge Halloween party at our place and I spent almost the entire evening locked in my room. Because that's what I was used to doing on a Friday night.

College is as much about broadening your experiences as it is about formal education and I did not take nearly enough advantage of that. I did the same Sean-ish things in college that I did in high school. Most of the new experiences I had -- the times when I was outside my comfort zone -- weren't very deliberate on my part. Something I stumbled into by accident, or was dragged into almost unwillingly, or was just forced into by the circumstance of being somewhere different. Even though I very actively wanted to start fresh, I couldn't do it. Despite desperately wanting to run as far away from the previous four years, I didn't know how and was too scared to try on my own.

That is all what came flooding back to me in reading the recently-release volume 1 of Fangirl, by Sam Maggs and Gabi Nam based on the prose novel by Rainbow Rowell. Cath and her twin sister Wren are starting college. Their approaches are very different -- Wren changed her hair, goes out partying, really making a concerted effort to be an indivdiual instead of one of a pair. Cath, however, isn't taking this as well. She avoids talking to people to the point where she doesn't go to the cafeteria at all and tries to just survive off a stash of protein bars in her room. She spends most of her spare time working on fan fiction about Simon Snow, a in-world series of novels not unlike Harry Potter with maybe a little Twilight thrown in. That fandom is what is effectively holding her back -- her writing teacher calls out her fanfic as plagarism, her roommate views her obsession over the main characters with more than a raised eyebrow, and her time online takes away from in-person relationships.

When I was in college, I didn't obsess over comics as much as Cath does over Simon Snow. I wasn't so paranoid as to completely avoid the cafeteria. I did wind up talking with more than one person in my classes, and my roommate. I didn't have a twin to deal with. I never had a roommate like Cath's. I didn't have a girlfriend dump me over the phone. I didn't have a single parent who started talking to a long-absent mother again. Pretty much none of what Cath goes through in her first semester matches what I experienced.

But I still very much felt it. I very much was drawn back to my own early college experiences and and felt those not-exactly-parallel emotions. And I think that speaks very heavily to what Maggs and Nam have done here. I've read plenty of stories about college and college-age kids, and I've never had one send me back to my own experiences quite like that before. I haven't read Rowell's original piece to be able to speak to how the two compare, by Maggs does convey Cath's varied emotions very well through the dialogue, and Nam's illustrations reinforce that 100%. They did a fantastic job with this, and I would easily recommend it. I initially picked this up with a bit of ambivalence on what to expect, but I'm definitely won over and I'm eager for the next three volumes to come out!
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Matt K said...

Earlier this year I spent quite some time walking back through my life, mentally, and fwiw I reached almost an identical conclusion to your own.

"I received a fantastic opportunity in my college experience and, mostly, refrained from pissing it away completely" was my one-line summary.