Monday, February 16

Emiko Superstar

by Mariko Tamaki
illustrated by Steve Rolston
Minx / DC 2008

When DC Comics decided to launch its line of graphic novels aimed at teen girls I thought they were on to something, especially when I saw that they'd taken on YA author Cecil Castellucci for their inaugural title, The Plain Janes. It was an awkward start, as the pacing of that first title seemed a bit off, but the story had heart and its heart was in the right place. I had hope for them.

But subsequent releases didn't hold up for me, and it didn't help that the stories were written by guys. Should that make any difference? No, but in the world of YA -- the target market -- it takes a fairly sophisticated male author to capture female characters believably, and if that's your target market you really need to pay attention to what they want. So the fact that Minx closed shop at the end of 2008 wasn't really a surprise to me in the end. Their tag line was "Your life. Your books. How novel." How ironic, really.

Finishing Emiko Superstar I can't help wonder if Minx would still be around if this had been their second offering, and if they had bothered to collect a bunch of female voices to carry their line. On the face of it the story isn't really any different than any other teen tale of self-discovery -- male or female -- but its the strength of the voice and character that really works here.

Emiko is going through that summer when something momentous happens that changes her life forever. Having lost her corporate coffee shop job, Emiko lands a babysitting job with some neighbors while at the same time accidentally discovering an underground scene full of performance artists called the Factory. Emiko the shy and timid is nonetheless Emiko the searcher and she investigates this scene full of freaks, totally mesmerized by the star performer, Poppy. While trying to get up the nerve to perform at the Factory, Emi discovers that the wife of the couple she is babysitting for is keeping a secret diary. Using some of her grandmother's clothes from the 1960s, and selecting bits of the diary, she becomes a poet-performer mining trapped suburban housewife angst. As Emi's star rises Poppy's falls, and the attention of the Factory's "curator" leads to a shuttering of the scene. Emi realizes that she's found a window into her true self, and by the end of summer knows is only a question of discovering the rest of her untapped talents.

Getting back to this idea of gender, this story could have been told through either a boy or a girl protagonist, but the fact that it's a girl emerging from her own geeky shadow is less typical. Admittedly, it would be more adventurous to have all the genders reversed and to see a female impresario playing favorites with a bevy of boy toys, but that would also be less realistic. Girls seeking attention and self-expression fall into the hands of those who will best exploit them, which all too often are men, and what's nice here is that Emi is shown uncomfortable and yet just strong enough to resist the negative aspects where others do not.

I've already written an obituary on Minx, and I still think that current business models neither can take the time to develop a brand, or to gather the roster necessary to make it fly before declaring it a failed product. Note to other publishers: girls are still not being served.

* * * *

I wrote this before the finalists were announced for the Cybil Awards graphic novel category. Once they were announced I was bound by my role as a judge not to publish this review for fear of showing favoritism. It turns out I wasn't alone in feeling that Emiko Superstar was a worthy title: it has won this year's Cybil for Graphic Novels in the YA category.

For the full list of winners check out the Cybils website.
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