216 pgs. B&W | $14.99 | W / A: Hazel Newlevant
Hazel Newlevant’s new graphic novel takes an interesting angle on the typical comic book memoir: it isn’t about one big moment of personal discovery, but rather an entire summer, one where, through a series of smaller incidents, the wool was slowly pulled off of the author’s eyes and they finally saw the world for what it really is. Any of the individual throughlines or subplots could have been their own minidrama, but by casting a wide net, Newlevant wisely ends up with a book that’s full of ups and downs and sideways excursions. Mostly, it just feels a lot like life.
Hazel is 17 years old, a white kid from Portland with parents affluent enough to homeschool them. Hazel, Hazel’s boyfriend, and Hazel’s best friend are making videos about why homeschooling is awesome for a contest, hoping for the prize money to pay for a road trip to see a Guster concert (good call!). As added insurance, Hazel also signs up for a summer job with the No Ivy League, a program that removes invasive ivy from Portland’s Forest Park to keep it from choking out all of the native plant species. Hazel expects grueling work, but does not anticipate all the ways their sheltered homeschooler perspective will be challenged by the cultural hodgepodge of at-risk youths in the program.
Newlevant captures the conflicts at the heart of No Ivy League in moments big and small. Hazel loves hip-hop but gets treated like a dork for having old school tastes, makes a pass at an older supervisor and continues to press (to their embarrassment) after finding out he’s engaged, reports a black kid for sexual harassment only to have second thoughts after seeing the fallout. In exploring these moments, Newlevant makes a wise stylistic choice in eschewing narration entirely. Yes, as an author, the Hazel Newlevant of today still picks and chooses what we get to see, but what we do see, we see through the eyes of Hazel Newlevant, age 17. Their confusion, their embarrassment, their excitement, their pain, none of it is softened by an omniscient current-day voice adding context or adult perspective. It’s pure show-don’t-tell, Newlevant letting us see their growth and subtle changes in perspective through actions and spoken dialogue, and it works wonders.
Newlevant’s art is just as key in capturing that growth, thanks to characters with lightly cartooned features that amplify the subtle emotions without overplaying their hand. Newlevant uses an interesting technique, wherein the figures are roughly penciled, then each panel is fully painted in gray watercolors, then ink outlines are added after the fact to add depth and make the foreground characters “pop” from their surroundings. The end result is unique in its blend of lushness and looseness, the characters remaining gestural and expressive while the world feels three-dimensional and well-grounded in reality.
No Ivy League includes a large ensemble of characters from across many different races and classes. Their presence is what gives Hazel their means to learn and grow, but this being Hazel’s story, the large cast for the most part remains rough sketches rather than fully formed characters. The dialogue of these characters can at times sound tin-eared, with slang that feels out of place for the time period. (Honestly, between the slang and the musical references, the time period is hard to pin down.)
That is a minor quibble in a book that nails its tone and its purpose thanks to Newlevant’s wonderful illustrations, insightful perspective, and unique storytelling choices. The book will prove an especially powerful read for teenagers around Hazel’s age, tackling issues of privilege and acceptance in a language they’ll understand without coming anywhere near preachy platitudes. | Jason Green
Click here for more information and a brief preview, courtesy of Lion Forge.