The War at Ellsmere

The War at Ellsmere cover

I didn’t read Faith Erin Hicks’ first graphic novel, Zombies Calling, because, you know, I hate zombies. But I enjoyed The War at Ellsmere so much I need to rethink that.

Juniper is a scholarship student joining Ellsmere Academy, a private girls’ school she’s attending for its excellent academic record. Being away from her home and family is a challenge for her, but her most immediate battle is with Emily, queen bee.

Jun didn’t expect to make friends, which is good, since her refusal to kowtow and take up her designated position as needy poor girl puts her on the outs. She even accidentally insults her gentle roommate Cassie on the first day. Cassie, unfortunately, is used to it, being low girl in the ranks until now.

The War at Ellsmere cover

It’s an involving picture of how some situations seem inevitable in their development. Jun expects trouble, so she puts up a tough shield that aggravates her new classmates. The mean girls take the bait, and Jun rubs their faces in it, giving back more than she got, because she couldn’t resist the opening. Jun’s not perfect, but she’s also not deserving of how the grudge war escalates.

Messing with a smart girl is a bad idea, on both sides, and some of their rivalry is pure academic jealousy. Both are used to being top of their class, and obviously, that can’t still be true for both of them. Emily’s concerned about Jun giving the other girls “ideas” about changing around the established hierarchy, the one that benefits her. Plus, Emily is incredibly skilled at finding just the right location to drive her emotional knives. Some of the tactics are shocking for teens to contemplate, let alone execute.

Hicks’ blocky, big-headed art reminds me of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim; this book would be a good choice for a fan of that series looking for something to read next. The style foregrounds the characters’ emotions, making their expressions central. I particularly liked the scene where Cassie is shown a different way and realizes that Jun and she might really be true friends. Cassie frowns off into the distance in a silent panel during their conversation, coming back with “I just noticed… I think Emily’s kind of evil.”

Hicks also fleshes out her settings and environments. The school has a solid presence that supports the class warfare element subtly, with the pressure of centuries of existence surrounding the young women. The emotional core of the story, Jun and Cassie’s growing friendship and the way it reveals Cassie’s hidden depths, drew me in as it developed. I particularly admired the way Hicks made Juniper well-rounded. I was rooting for her, of course, as the underdog, but she’s not perfect. She’s got her pride and her own weaknesses. (There’s also an argument to be made that the book is really Cassie’s story, not Jun’s.)

There is a fantasy element that appears near the end that I found completely unnecessary. Until then, it was a plausible story of teen girls growing up and learning which goals are acceptable and achievable. I wish Hicks had had enough confidence in her storytelling to leave out the mystical fix. (Yes, it was foreshadowed earlier on, but the historical tale could as easily just have been more atmosphere for the ancient school.) But even with that, I hope that there’s a sequel. I don’t want this to be the only time I see these characters.

At her livejournal, Hicks shares her comic bio. See more of her work at her website. There was a school memories contest; the winners received an original sketch or a signed copy of the book.

If you’d like to read other girls-in-private-school comics, try The Dreaming or Kat & Mouse. (A complimentary preview copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)