Review of the Day: Life Sucks
By Jessica Abel and Gabe Soria
Drawn by Warren Pleece
Colored by Hilary Sycamore
First Second (imprint of Roaring Brook Press)
Ages 15 and up
On shelves April 29, 2008
I don’t normally review teen. But YA good graphic novels get a pass.
A person could be forgiven for getting tired of vampires. Is it fair to say that they’ve been "done"? From the Twilight series to Buffy to whatever vampire-related dreck we see next you sometimes just wanna grab the creators and say, "ALL RIGHT! FINE! I GET IT! IT’S A METAPHOR! CAN WE MOVE ON ALREADY???" I think we’re finally reaching that phase where people start looking beyond vampire for their supernatural thrills (Zombies: This year’s vampires) and in my own personal life I was prepared to never ever read another frickin’ vampire novel again. So when someone at First Second handed me a copy of Life Sucks I was so not interested. Not not not. I wanted to yell, "Booooooooring!" at them and hand the novel to the first graphic novel-inclined soul I met. But that night I made a huge step backwards in my campaign against reading any more vamplit. I read a page or two. Then three. Then before I knew it I was reading the entire book, it was 2 a.m., and I couldn’t stop. In fact, as I am writing this review I just attempted to read a page or two to pinpoint why this was and the next thing I knew I was on page fifteen. Life Sucks takes that old tired vampire idea, places it under ugly fluorescent lights and their dead end jobs and somehow the combination is electric. For even the most vamped out amongst us, Life Sucks offers something fresh and new.
Dave works the night shift at the Last Stop corner mart and his life is going nowhere. Literally. I mean, Dave’s a vampire (can you say "worst job interview ever"?) and his master/boss happens to be Radu, a manager who likes to use terms like "team player" and "culinary instinct". If it weren’t for Rosa he might just do himself in. Rosa’s one of those girls, living girls, with a penchant for the Gothic. She fancies guys in capes with fake pointy teeth. Dave’s got the real thing in his own mouth, but being strictly a vegetarian (blood from a can and he does NOT want to know where it comes from) he’d rather she didn’t know about his dark side. That’s all well and good until Wes, a surfer vamp with the same master as Dave, shows an interest in Rosa and makes a bet to make her his without the use of his powers. When Rosa suspects something is afoot, however, Dave has to make a couple sacrifices of his own to keep her safe.
An uninitiated reader unfamiliar with the graphic novel genre might pooh-pooh the notion of there being great writing in comic books. There’s a perception out there that for a book to contain both pictures and words, both the words and the pictures are rendered less worthy through the combination. As if pictures destroy the worthiness of the text and dumb it down. Aside from this being an outdated and, let’s admit it, old-fashioned view of the graphic format, I have to admit that when I read a book like Life Sucks and find the writing to be superb, I still feel that telltale twinge of surprise. Somewhere deep down inside of me there’s this part that is surprised every single time I pick up a graphic novel and find it great. Author Jessica Abel is a comic book artist who has a YA novel by the name of "Carmina" that is apparently coming out with Harper Collins at some point. On this book she has paired with Brooklyn writer Gabe Soria. Together the two give Life Sucks just the right amounts of mindless drudgery and crazy fantasy.
Equating low-paying awful jobs with vampirism and managerial schlock is a pretty good idea. This is illustrated best when Rosa starts telling Dave how she would imagine a vampire’s life to be. She doesn’t want to hear about the night jobs or the low pay. She imagines "this vast network of dark, beautiful, intellectual, and artistic people, living forever with only the best things, the best food, the best clothes, beautiful homes…" This image is paired with the reality that Dave knows of Eastern European vampire immigrants playing poker and smoking over a card table at night. You can understand Rosa’s desire to get away from L.A., but it’s clear that vampirism just makes it worse, not better.
The moral issues attached to being a vampire get some examination here, but Abel and Soria have to fudge a bit to make them work. Dave doesn’t eat people (much to the other vampires’ chagrin) and he doesn’t turn people into vampires either. His friend Jerome eats people with impunity and still comes off as a pretty decent guy, which is an interesting dynamic. I guess that if your book has comic elements you can get away with the funny guy killing folk, but it’s still pretty weird. The nice thing is that the authors are consistent with the character of Dave, giving the ending of the book a sad/funny take. Dave has compromised himself morally to save someone he loves. And this reveal is delivered in a humorous fashion, though there’s a sadness to it that fits with the rest of the book. Bleak, but not too bleak.
Warren Pleece was a good artistic pairing for this book. He’s done a lot with DC, including The Invisibles and Hellblazer. He has a style that works for this storyline. For the most part the book is concerned with real people and their real lives. And sure, once in a while someone gets their head ripped off, but generally Pleece has a good feel for that skinny guy who’s always the girl’s best friend but somehow never manages to turn that into becoming the girl’s BOYfriend. He has a great cast of instantly recognizable characters (that’s always important to me) and I loved the shifting perspectives. I enjoyed the colors too, but that work is done by First Second’s residential colorist Hilary Sycamore (doing everything from Laika to Missouri Boy) so he doesn’t get credit for that.
There was once an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Buffy encountered a group of high school students with idealized views of what it would be like to hang out with and become vampires. Abel and Soria take a similar idea, but in their hands it’s a story of what it’s like to be in your mid-twenties without a clue about where your going or who you want to be. You feel powerless next to the jerkwad manager of your minimum wage job, like you couldn’t leave if you wanted to. So it’s either climb the ladder or stay where you are. That kind of hopelessness and limbo comes through loud and clear in Life Sucks and somehow ends up a fascinating, thoughtful read. A great addition to First Second’s literary catalog.
On shelves April 29, 2008.
Other Blog Reviews: bookshelves of doom, Booktopia, Reading Rants, and Robbie’s Reads
Filed under: Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network
U.S. Gov: ‘All Books Must Have Round Corners’
Review of the Day – Bear and Bird: The Picnic and Other Stories by Jarvis
Review: Swim Team
Write What You Know. Read What You Don’t, a guest post by Lauren Thoman
The Classroom Bookshelf is Moving