Review of the Day: Red Scare by Liam Francis Walsh
To what extent has the age of disparaging comics passed? In the old days, books like Seduction of the Innocent by Frederic Wertham argued that comics were a morally repugnant form of entertainment. It took decades upon decades for graphic novels to pull themselves up out of the morass of ill-favored commentary and start winning major awards. The Pulitzer for Maus. The Newbery for New Kid. Now more high quality comics for kids are being published than ever before, but even at their peak they still can hardly touch kids’ insatiable demand. I was probably thinking about all of this as I read Red Scare by Liam Francis Walsh, in large part because he’s set the book right smack dab in 1953 (Seduction of the Innocent was published in 1954). As I paged through a book so thoroughly enmeshed in history and science fiction by turns, I marveled that something this accomplished is just so casually available to kids these days. When I was young you had your Carl Barks at the 7-11, if you were lucky, and the newspaper comic collections at the library. Now we get gripping, thoughtful, historical/science fiction hybrids for kids that have a lot to say to young readers today. Lucky young ‘uns.
If you found something that could completely change your life for the better, what would it take to get you to give it away? Peggy’s been miserable since she contracted polio. Her brother won’t even look at her. Her mom keeps insisting she do her leg exercises. And her dad . . . well, he’s got his own issues. Then one day everything changes. Somewhere a marvelous glowing rod ends up in Peggy’s crutch. The rod has the ability to make anyone in contact with it capable of flight. Now Peggy’s zooming through the skies, making new friends, and having a blast. But as it turns out, she has enemies everywhere. Can she trust the FBI agents that keep following her? And what about that creepy guy with the fedora and glasses that appears everywhere she goes? Is he really a Communist spy? It’s hard to know what the right thing is when your country is caught up in a Cold War, but sometimes the answers are more obvious than you think.
Somewhere I once read about a moment that happens in fiction, whether it’s film or prose or comics, where characters in a book will suddenly come to a realization that they need to make a mental shift because their genre just changed. That sure as heck happens in Red Scare. For the first 60 pages you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were reading a pretty darn good McCarthy-era comic. It’s only when the characters start flying all over the place that both they, and you, realize that this is science fiction, pure and simple. Mind you, the main character reading The Martian Chronicles in her spare time was probably a dead giveaway. Of course once you’ve identified the real genre, the next step is to determine how well the author/artist transitioned you, the reader, from one type of story to another. For me, the moment is shocking, which is precisely what Mr. Walsh is going for. Its reveal is big and dramatic, and I may have had to suppress a little gasp when I encountered it on the page. I should note, by the way, that my 10-year-old daughter was incredulous that I didn’t realize that the book was science fiction from the start. “Don’t you remember the scene in the beginning of the book?” she pointed out to me. Ah. Yes. Well . . . there’s also that.
And yet it could easily have been a parody of itself. There are times when the 50s tropes are so piled on top of one another that you begin to wonder if there was any idea Walsh didn’t include. Polio, McCarthyism, alien invasion films, Korean War vets with PTSD, it’s all mixed in together. I’ve read it through a couple times and part of what I admire about it is how well the story holds together. The crux of it all lies with Peggy. Essentially, the book is demanding that she be more than a passive observer of her own life (Jess would call it “gumption”). The decision she has to wrestle with is whether or not to return something that doesn’t belong to her, but that makes her life better and easier. That’s something any kid could sympathize with, even as they root for her to make he right decision.
Now the flipside of that messaging are the times where the book tips a little too far into the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps mentality, to its own detriment. You know that moment in the movie Up where the two old guys are fighting and long forgotten are their physical ailments? That kind of thing always bugs me, since it plays off physical injury as mental, in some way. The same could be said of certain moments in Red Scare. Peggy has to climb a ladder, in spite of the fact that she hasn’t been exercising her own limbs properly, and anytime she points out her limitations, sympathetic characters pooh-pooh her concerns. Could have used a bit less of that overall. And the cast of the comic, for the record, is fairly all white. All things to bear in mind going into it.
Initially when I read that creator Liam Francis Walsh lived in Switzerland I thought, “Ah, yes. The overwhelming Tintin influence (guns and all) makes so much more sense now.” Somehow I’d conveniently missed the fact that Walsh had grown up in Wisconsin. But the Tintin feel is legit (you practically expect Captain Haddock or Thomson and Thompson to come blustering into some of these scenes) even as it also has more than a drop of Little Orphan Annie in there as well. And yet, the tone of the book is entirely its own. It’s as if Walsh had melted a little Tintin in a pan of hot noir. I feel I cannot adequately stress not simply how well drawn it is, but how beautiful some of these individual scenes are. Early in the book there is a moment where Peggy and Skip have been held after school in detention. The long panel is wordless and breathtaking. The afternoon sun splits the room in half. On the dark side are Skip and Peggy, fuming. In that hard early fall/late afternoon yellow sits their jaded teacher, smoking and reading, all black shadows and crisp pen lines. It’s a bit unclear if Walsh inked colored the book in addition to drawing it. If he did, the man’s a triple threat. It harkens back to some of the best black and white films of the 50s, while utilizing color in smart, specific ways.
I always like to pair books together in my mind as I read them. Reading Red Scare, the book I was reminded of the most isn’t even a comic at all, but a middle grade novel. Spy Runner by Eugene Yelchin is also very visual, though, and its tone replicates Walsh’s in a lot of ways. Both books take a good, hard look at America’s red scare and find the country wanting. But of course they also trade in on some of the nostalgia for that bygone era as well. Unfortunately, some of its less savory aspects are alive and well with us today. The lessons the kids can take from this book, then, comes in the form of a warning. Beware the mobs. Beware joining them. Beware and aware of what they’re capable of, and don’t disregard them either. But beware your worst instincts most of all.
On shelves April 19th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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.
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