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Saturday, 14 July 2012

Adolescence is a period of change, but in our culture we paradoxically view it as a period of change into what you really are the whole time. Almost all popular-media stories about teens consciously trying to change themselves end with some level of failure for not being honest about their true selves. Instead, our modern stories emphasize self-acceptance, recognizing the value of what you are all along. Whether that’s a purely Good Thing is another matter.

Which, by a roundabout course, brings me to Teen Boat!, a new collection of comics adventures by writer Dave Roman and artist John Green. Little Willow’s interview with Roman at Bildungsroman dredges up the start of this tale:
…the inspiration came to us while we were on a bus. Long trips can often lead to loopy thoughts, especially for comic creators. One minute John Green and I are discussing ’80s cartoons and the spectrum of cool vs. less-cool transformation powers, then we’re talking about imaginary boardroom meetings gone wrong, and before long we were pitching tag lines like “The ANGST of being a teen, the THRILL of being a boat.”

It easily could have stayed a joke amongst ourselves, but we felt compelled to share our idea of a teenager who transforms into a yacht with all our cartoonists friends. The more they laughed, the more John and I were motivated to turn the silly premise into something real. And one of the many beautiful things about comics is there's very little stopping you from making that happen.

Our first Teen Boat! books were printed on a black and white photocopier, hand stapled, and hand sold for 50 cents each at indie comic shows. Ten years later, it’s a full-color hardcover book sold in bookstores everywhere and endorsed by the Junior Library Guild!
Specifically, Teen Boat! appears to have been inspired by Turbo Teen, a 1984 animated cartoon about a boy who makes temperature-sensitive shifts to and from being a car. Hard to imagine why that show lasted only twelve episodes.

Teen Boat! began as a series of black-and-white minicomics parodying such adventures through a adolescent hero who can change into a small yacht. It grew into a substantial (though unfinished) collection of stories from Clarion, now fully colored (by a team that included Braden Lamb).

Mercifully, the collection doesn’t include an origin story. We have no idea how Teen Boat came to be both a boy and a boat. (In one flashback panel he has a mom.) Nor does he have a secret identity—his name is Teen Boat. But we don’t need those elements of the classic superhero narrative. All that matters for these stories is that our hero is stuck/blessed with being both a boat and a teenager.

Beyond that premise, Teen Boat! floats on an ocean of North American teen-comedy-adventure stories from cartoons, sitcoms, and comics. We see the rich and jockish bully, the pretty exchange student, the inveterate rule-breaker, and other familiar high-school types. Teen Boat’s best friend climbs in through his bedroom window as on Clarissa Explains It All or Doogie Howser, M.D. Stories revolve around the class trip, the big dance, the school election, the driving test, the mystery that only a teen-aged amateur sleuth can solve, and other common rites of passage.

Yet Teen Boat! goes deeper than parody. As other have noted, including the AV Club and Hal Johnson at Paste Magazine, these stories has real heart. Just because the situations that teenagers find themselves in can easily be parodied doesn’t mean the underlying emotions aren’t real.

Teen Boat’s everyboat quality makes him an appealing hero. While young readers may laugh at the parodic touches, they may also recognize their own concerns in him. And when they see that even Teen Boat worries about skin blemishes or how to buy “nautical accessories,” might that offer a little more perspective on their own angst?

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