Awkward athletics, unspeakable crushes, alienated former best friends — if Annie’s older brother is right about freshman year determining the rest of her life, she’s not looking at a very bright future. Corinne Mucha’s graphic novel Freshman: Tales of 9th Grade Obsessions, Revelations, and Other Nonsense is a fun but still insightful look at that intimidating first year of high school, when everything seems like it’s on the verge of disaster and you’re trembling at the brink of being a social pariah.
Annie starts the school year with Richie, her friend since kindergarten, but her former best friend Beth has gone goth and doesn’t seem to want to have anything to do with Annie. Soon their social circle expands as they meet new people. Annie starts hanging out with over-achieving and boy-crazy Katrina, while Richie finds a buddy in his locker neighbor, the very tall musician Zane.
The episodic narrative follows Annie through the whole school year — from her first semester starry-eyed crush on Katrina’s older brother Luke to her second semester depression and re-emergence into a life that has changed forever, but not necessarily for the worse. Mucha handles the seeming contradictions of adolescent life, such as when Annie writes in her journal about the difficulties of being in the school play — “Oddly enough, I also feel happy,” she writes. “I think something might be wrong with me.”
Unfortunately, this tenuous happiness doesn’t last, as the end of the play also brings with it a serious disappointment. When Richie tries to reassure her by saying “I’m sure it’s all going to fine,” she shoots back, “SHUT UP, Richie. This is no time for optimism.” This is the start of Annie’s depression, and it is sensitively and realistically handled. There is not a single, devastating event that leads her into her despondence, but rather an accumulation of disappointments like her estrangement from her best friend, her field hockey coach’s and teammates’ cutting remarks, and her crush getting a girlfriend who isn’t her.
Annie’s slide into oversleeping, sloppy clothes and afternoons spent lying on the cot in the nurse’s office capture the creeping fog of depression perfectly. However, her depression is resolved far more easily than I would like. For most seriously depressed teens, a cheery voicemail from a friend would be welcome, but wouldn’t cure their illness. Still, even as Mucha shows a series of small disappointments can push Annie into depression, she also shows how small triumphs can strengthen her and help her begin to discover who she’ll be in her all-important high school career.
The art, with spot colors in khaki green, is blocky and deceivingly simple. Mucha, who won a Xeric Award for her graphic novel My Alaskan Summer, conveys emotions beautifully and even scenes that depict only telephone conversations are lively and expressive, thanks to the nuances of the characters’ faces.
What is refreshing about Mucha’s work is that it captures all the charm of a John Hughes film without what have become teen movie cliches. The dream boy doesn’t miraculously become attainable, the best friend doesn’t suddenly become desirable. Mucha depicts adolescent life for what it is: baffling, messy, and, at times, unexpectedly awesome.Powered by Sidelines