Walker Books, $22.00,
Both Reach and Broken feature episodes of the superhero genre, and in each case this element of the story functions as an exploration into the character’s psyche.
In Reach, the main character Will has a number of problems, and while many of them are quite typical for a teenage boy (bullying, first love), some are a little more complex. Will lives with his grandparents after his mother left five years ago and his father was unable to cope. His relationship with his parents is the most difficult aspect of Will’s story: the young reader will not easily relate to Will’s wish to reconnect with the estranged mother who shows little interest in him, or Will’s cool and casual interactions with the father who lives just down the road. Will’s own focus for much of the novel is Conway, a girl from school. Also at school are his best friend Perky and his nemesis and bully Woody.
These are the characters for the secondary narrative, the adventures of Superclerk of Wintersville, a sci-fi superhero story written episodically by Will himself. Triggered by events at school, Will overtly casts his classmates as heroes and villains, and plays out scenarios of wish-fulfilment.
Interestingly, it is not Will’s sci-fi alter-ego Superclerk, but Will himself who leads a superhero-style double life: somewhat of a bookish nerd at school, Will secretly excels as a taekwondo student in his spare time. These story threads – school, taekwondo and the sci-fi story – intersect crucially towards the end of the novel, though the narrative of Will’s home and family life takes a little longer to unravel. Overall the novel is not merely a storyline in which problems have to be fixed or obstacles overcome, but rather it portrays a slice of teenage life in a very believable way, despite its idiosyncrasies.
Broken combines narrative and graphic novel. The change between them is signalled by a different font and the addition of illustrations by Angus Gomes.
The primary narrative is a first-person account of a girl in a coma after a motorbike accident. A newspaper clipping acts as a prologue to the story and informs the reader that Zara is in a coma in hospital while her brother Jem has died in the accident. Zara does not know about her brother’s death, and her search for Jem becomes the chief focus of the story; or so it would seem.
The narrative is told on three levels: Zara in her coma can hear people visiting and talking to her; flashbacks to past conversations and events provide background and act as a portal to the third level; the graphic novel Hoodman is Jem’s favourite comic, which Zara manages to enter as a character in her search for Jem. The comic-book plot and characters can at first be read as a metaphor for Zara’s situation: she is often powerless or unable to influence her surroundings, and Jem is always out of reach. But it becomes increasingly clear that there is more to this storyline than finding Jem, as a secret from Zara’s past keeps intruding into her quest.
By the end of the book the graphic novel narrative may be reassessed as a metaphor for death. Jem is there to be sure, but Zara has to decide to go back to join the living and face her demons in the real world. Rather than being a story of acceptance of her brother’s death, the book becomes a journey of catharsis in which Zara’s demon from the past is finally purged.
What is interesting about Broken and Reach is their double-layering of real life and superhero fantasy, and the use of the superhero genre as a coping device for the main characters. But beyond that both books portray much more real and important matters about family, friendship, grief, love and secrets. The constant change in narrative medium and genre works well to hold the young reader’s attention, but in the end it will be the real-life stories that the reader remembers, and that is as it should be.
Tatjana Schaefer teaches in the English Programme at Victoria University of Wellington.