Friends With Boys

Friends With Boys cover

I’m a big fan of Faith Erin Hicks’ work, so I knew I’d love her new graphic novel, but I had no idea how much. With Friends With Boys, Hicks has developed into a cartoonist you need to be reading.

Drawing on her own home-schooling experiences, but not sinking into autobiography, Hicks tells the story of Maggie, the youngest of four siblings and the only girl in the family. They’d all previously been taught by their mother, but she has recently departed (like Maggie, we’re not sure why), and now Maggie is going to public school, high school, for the first time.

The situation of being thrown into a new, overwhelming academic environment is classic in the young adult genre, but Hicks freshens it by layering more reasons for Maggie to struggle. Beyond her close-knit family, where her only companions (and the only ones she needed) growing up were her brothers, there’s another element that sets Maggie apart — she sees a ghost at the local graveyard. Readers of Hicks’ works won’t be surprised that she uses a fantasy element as symbolism for Maggie’s disconnection with her peer group and a sign of her non-standard way of growing up.

Friends With Boys cover

The cemetary foregrounds another of Hicks’ outstanding skills: her sense of place. The book is set in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and Hicks’ beautiful illustrations of the location ground the tale. Particularly impressive are shots of the family home and their neighborhood. Also stunning is the depth of the character portraits Hicks has created. I want to hang out with Maggie and meet her comforting chief of police father and her new friends Lucy and her brother Alistair (a bit of the artsy crowd, just right for a loner unsure of what she has to offer). They seem so three-dimensional and interesting and vibrant.

Maggie’s biggest brother, Daniel, rides herd on her and the twins, Xander and Lloyd, but it’s very clear, even through hijinks, that they all care very much for each other. Daniel’s advice is good, and he knows just when to help and when to let Maggie work things out on her own. This comes after she’s surprised by how much she doesn’t know about Daniel and his life outside of their home; all of the characters have robust backstories, some of which we discover in surprising ways as the book continues.

One of Maggie’s major growth markers is how she learns to have and believe in her own opinions, different from her brothers. Just because they do or don’t get along with someone, that doesn’t have to affect how she relates to that person. The concept of having to make your own choices and set your own path is particularly apparent when it comes to the twins, since their struggles with independence are even more pronounced, having always been together until now. Everyone in the book is learning to cope with change, whether chosen or not, but their path is particularly painful.

All of this is conveyed through Hicks’ expressive reaction shots that put you right there with what the characters are thinking. The wordless sequence where Lucy sees Alien for the first time is a masterpiece. The discussion that follows, about the importance of finding pop culture role models you can love is pretty good, too. Previously, some (including me) compared her work to that of Bryan Lee O’Malley due to some superficial similarities (blocky heads, big eyes), but this book should stop that, since it clearly establishes how Hicks has come into her own style.

For a very short time, you can read Friends With Boys online. In a week or two, now that the print version is available, the site will switch to just hosting preview pages, although Hicks’ excellent commentary on the book and creating comics as a career will remain. I’m very disappointed that, since the author’s notes were written after the print version was published, all these wonderful observations aren’t included in print. I would love to buy an expanded edition with them, or even a supplemental self-published volume, just so I could read through them together. I know I’ll be coming back to this story again and again, just to marvel at Hicks’ artistic accomplishments and hope and dream with Maggie. (The publisher provided a review copy.)